Asia Crisis

Desperate North Korea seeks food aid - UN official

SEOUL, April 11 (Reuters) - Impoverished North Korea is seeking international aid to battle one of its worst food shortfalls in years, a senior U.N. official based in Asia said on Friday.

Agricultural experts in Seoul have said the shortfall may be one of the worst since famine hit North Korea in the 1990s, the result of flood damage last year, high commodity prices and political wrangling with major food donor South Korea.

"The North Koreans know that they are facing a difficult situation and have made it increasingly clear in the past few weeks that they will need outside assistance to meet their growing needs," the U.N. official said, asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

North Korea, which even with a good harvest still falls about 1 million tonnes, or around 20 percent, short of what it needs to feed its people, relies heavily on aid from China, South Korea and U.N. aid agencies to fill the gap.

The UN official said it was clear from a variety of sources that the food security situation was worsening in North Korea and that it needed to be addressed.

Last month Kwon Tae-jin, an expert on the North's agriculture sector at the South's Korea Rural Economic Institute told Reuters that if South Korea and other nations did not send food aid, the North would be faced with a food crisis worse than the one in the 90s.

A famine in the mid-to-late 1990s killed more than 1 million North Koreans in a country of about 23 million.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation said in late March it sees the North having a shortfall of about 1.66 million tonnes in cereals for the year ending in October 2008.

North Korea for years has been able to receive massive food aid, with few questions asked, by left-of-centre South Korean governments who have seen the handouts as a small price to pay to keep the peninsula stable.

But the conservative government that took power in South Korea in February said there would no longer be a free ride for its capricious neighbour and wants to see progress on ending its nuclear weapons programme.

North Korea has no plans to ask Seoul for help but recently appealed to China for aid, the South's Hankyoreh newspaper last week quoted diplomatic sources as saying.

The South typically sends about 500,000 tonnes of rice and 300,000 tonnes of fertiliser a year. None has been sent this year and without the fertiliser, North Korea is almost certain to see a fall of several tens of tonnes in its harvest, Kwon said.

The North will start to feel the shortage the hardest in the coming months when its meagre stocks of food, already depleted by flooding that hit the country last year, dry up and before the start of its potato harvest in June and July.

China, the closest the North has to a major ally, has too many problems of its own, such as keeping runaway grain prices under control, to help its destitute neighbour, experts said.

But experts doubt that North Korea will offer to make concessions in international talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programme in order to receive food aid. (Additional reporting by Lee Jiyeon, editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Sanjeev Miglani)