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Wednesday, January 7, 1998 Published at 22:02 GMT

image: [ BBC Correspondent: James Miles ]James Miles

The United Nations World Food Programme says it's mounting the biggest emergency operation in its history to avert famine in North Korea and has appealed to the international community for more aid. The organisation said food stocks in the country could run out as early as April. Here's James Miles.

At a news conference in London, the head of the World Food Programme Catherine Bertini painted a bleak picture of what her agency says is the heightened threat of famine in North Korea. She said the programme needed nearly 380 million dollars in emergency food aid for North Korea this year, the largest amount ever mobilized for such an operation in the organization's history, and well over double the amount sent to the country last year.

Bertini said severe drought and tidal waves in recent months had aggravated the crisis, with agriculture already crippled by two years of extensive flooding. Most of the aid is being directed at children who are almost universally suffering from malnutrition.

The agency plans to give aid to about a third of the population or nearly seven-and-a-half million North Koreans this year, compared with just over four-and-a-half million last year. It also plans to nearly double its international staff in the country.

Ms Bertini said some factories were producing bricks of bark or leaves for people to satisfy their craving for food, even though such products had no nutritional value.

She said she could not verify reports that some North Koreans are turning to cannibalism. But she said there was one region near the border with China to which the North Korean government was only now allowing her agency access.

Ms. Bertini said she also had no figures for starvation deaths.

The communist government in North Korea controls one of the worlds most secretive societies, which until the food crisis emerged in the mid-1990s resisted seeking help from international bodies.

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