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U.N. warns on N. Korea food

North Korea's 23 million people have suffered food shortages for years.
North Korea's 23 million people have suffered food shortages for years.

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(CNN) -- The U. N. emergency food agency has renewed its call for urgent food aid for North Korea, warning that 1.5 million people will go hungry over the next six weeks.

It says that even with stop-gap shipments to the "hungriest of the hungry" this month, 6.5 million North Koreans remain at risk.

The communist state, 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 U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP).

The WFP said Wednesday that food shortages reached an unprecedented low at the beginning of February, when it could provide only enough cereal to feed 85,000 women and children.

WPP official Gerald Bourke told CNN on February 9 the food situation in the North had "never been this bad" and the situation was made even more severe because it was the height of winter in the country.

The agency's latest appeal comes as six-nation talks continue in Beijing over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

The nuclear crisis emerged in October 2002 when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted to secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang then pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and kicked out international inspectors.

U.S. President George W. Bush labeled North Korea a rogue state and part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and Iraq in early 2002 and the administration has since demanded that Pyongyang dismantle its nuclear program.

Before it will consider freezing its nuclear programs, North Korea says it wants a security guarantee from the U.S., plus fuel and economic aid and other concessions.

The U.N. food agency said Wednesday that since launching its urgent appeal on February 9, contributions have been received from Germany, New Zealand, Canada and Norway.

"In particular a stop-gap loan this month of 25,000 tonnes of cereals from the DPRK's (North Korea) own limited strategic stocks -- normally used for the public distribution system -- has allowed deliveries to be resumed to most of the hungry," it said.

The WFP said a further donation of 60,000 tons of food from the United States and important contributions from the European Commission and Australia would also provide crucially needed assistance. But deliveries would only start arriving in April and would not last very long.

It warned that even with the agency's stop-gap borrowings from North Korea and other sources, 1.5 million of its 4.2 million "core" recipients would still have to make do without cereal rations for the next six weeks.

Scheduled shipments will reduce that number to 600,000 in April-May, but without further commitments soon, the number will rise again to 1 million in June and to almost 3 million in August.

"Given the long lead time between food aid donations and deliveries -- routinely three to four months -- we need pledges now in order to feed the hungriest of the hungry in the latter part of the year as well as to repay loans," Masood Hyder, the WFP representative for North Korea, said.

Battered economy

North Korea spends heavily on its military strength, including missiles.
North Korea spends heavily on its military strength, including missiles.

North Korea's economy has been in dire straits for years. Along with food shortages, it suffers from a lack of energy and poor transport and distribution infrastructure.

A series of natural disasters since 1995 and an economic downturn over the last decade have crippled its food security, according to 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 programs, including the development of ballistic missiles.

Much of the North's overseas earnings are thought to come from trafficking of narcotics, counterfeiting and the sale of weapons.

According to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, U.S. and South Korean military researches estimate that North Korea exports $500 million of narcotics a year.

Some economists worry that a collapse of the North Korean state is just a matter of time, and that the event will place a huge financial burden on the South.

Ratings agency Standard & Poor's warned late last year that a sudden collapse in Pyongyang was likely to have a greater impact on the South than the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, which devastated many South Korean banks and much of the nation's corporate sector. (Full story)

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