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N. Korea food shortage worsens

Thousands of North Korean children are suffering from food shortages.
Thousands of North Korean children are suffering from food shortages.

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(CNN) -- More than 6.4 million already undernourished North Koreans face even more drastic food shortages in the next few months, the U.N. food agency warns.

The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) has appealed to overseas donors for help, saying it needs more supplies urgently.

Gerald Bourke of the WFP told CNN Monday that the food situation in North Korea had "never been this bad".

He said the situation was made even more severe because it was the height of winter in the country. People were suffering from extreme cold and inadequate food supplies.

The WFP coordinator in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, Masood Hyder, told a news conference in Beijing Monday that for the next two months food rations will go only to about 100,000 people, out of a total 6.5 million it seeks to help.

These are the most needy -- mostly child-bearing women and children in hospitals and orphanges.

Food shipments from Russia, the United States and other donors are not due to arrive until the end of March.

Hyder said that without new pledges, the food pipeline would dry up again in June.

"If you're going to give, please give early," Hyder urged potential donors, Reuters news agency reported.

North Korea, ruled by reclusive leader Kim Jong-il, is already unable to feed its 23 million people and relies heavily on outside food aid distributed by the WFP.

As well, the North's decrepit economy is burdened by a massive military budget. The secretive state has more than a million men and women under arms -- one of the largest standing armies in the world -- and spends heavily on its weapons program.

Its secret nuclear program has antagonized the United States, but there is a prospect tensions will ease when six-nation talks involving the two Koreas, Russia, Japan, China and the U.S. resume in Beijing on February 25.

According to the World Food Program, a series of natural disasters beginning in 1995 coupled with an economic downturn over the last decade have crippled North Korea's food security.

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