North Korea is facing one of its biggest food shortages in the past decade with millions of people going hungry because of a poor harvest and a huge drop in donor aid, a U.N. official said Wednesday.
Anthony Banbury, the Asian regional director for the World Food Program who just returned from a six-day trip to North Korea, said officials there told him they faced a food gap of 1 million tons.
He said they requested that the agency expand its assistance -- a rare admission and plea for help from the secretive Stalinist regime.
The weak harvest in 2006, disastrous summer flooding and a 75 percent fall in donor assistance have dealt severe blows to the impoverished nation, he said.
"If donors do not respond to the request, millions of people are going to go hungry," Banbury told a news conference.
North Korea has relied on foreign food aid since natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy in the mid-1990s and led to a famine estimated to have killed some 2 million people.
But the secretive regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il restricted activities of aid agencies and pressed them to reduce the size of their foreign staffs in the country.
In past years, the WFP fed about 6.5 million people annually in the North, but scaled back its proposed program last year to 1.9 million people after Pyongyang requested in 2005 to switch its emphasis from food aid to development assistance, claiming that food supplies were adequate.
In reality, the Rome-based WFP has since been able to reach only 700,000 people -- about 3 percent of the North's population of 23 million -- because of its smaller operation and lack of funding.
Although no large-scale famines or deaths are predicted, "we are heading in the wrong direction," he said.
"A lot of effort was made in the last decade to improve the situation and many gains were achieved," Banbury said. "Now, unfortunately, we face a situation where those gains may be reversed."
Two years ago, the North said it could feed its people with its improved harvests and help from neighboring China and South Korea, the two biggest helpers. But China's aid has since shrunk to about 10,000 tons a month, from close to 500,000 tons in 2005, Jean-Pierre de Margerie, WFP's country representative in North Korea, said Wednesday.
Seoul stopped aid after the North fired a series of missiles in July and kept it on hold in the wake of Pyongyang's October atomic test, but resumed official economic assistance this week by sending a shipload of fertilizer.
However, South Korea plans to hold off on resuming rice shipments until after mid-April to make sure the North carries out its promise to close its main nuclear reactor as part of a landmark Feb. 13 deal crafted during ongoing six-nation disarmament talks. The other participants are the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
"We can't wait ... The lean season is upon is," Banbury said. "The needs of the people are separate from the political talks. There ought not to be a direct linkage between those talks and the food security situation in the country."