Asia Crisis

U.N. says North Korea food aid has dried up

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BEIJING, July 1 (Reuters) - Food aid to North Korea has dried up following its May nuclear test even though the need is as acute as ever, a U.N. official just back from the country said on Wednesday.

North Korea has relied on food handouts from South Korea, China, the WFP and others for years. During a famine in the 1990s, as many as 1 million of the North's then 22 million people died.

Flooding over the past few years and the South's decision to suspend fertiliser aid in response to Pyongyang failing to live up to the terms of a nuclear disarmament deal have also pushed down domestic production.

Countries appear even less willing to give following North Korea's second nuclear test in May, Torben Due, the U.N. World Food Programme representative in North Korea, told a news conference in Beijing.

"It's a very sensitive area. I understand to a certain extent why donors are questioning," he said. "But my angle is as a humanitarian. Being a humanitarian organisation you should look at the needs of the people. WFP does not engage in the political part of it."

Due said no new donations had been received following that second test.

An appeal for more than $500 million in food aid has been just 15 percent met, meaning a planned relief operation to reach 6.2 million people has been scaled back to target 2 million.

Due, who lives in Pyongyang and was passing through the Chinese capital, told of the human toll of the state's struggling economy and international seclusion, with mothers and children stunted by starvation.

"We are now in the middle of the lean season in North Korea, where food supplies are low and it's a very difficult situation for many people in the country," he said.

"But more importantly it should be noted that we have a situation where a very large part of the population has been undernourished for 15 or 20 years."

In some parts of North Korea, some women weigh just 45 kg (99 lb) when they give birth, he added, citing a medical survey.

"The children that survive these conditions will be born with compromised immune systems ... and that will contribute to their stunting," Due said. "It's a problem which goes from one generation to the next." (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)