BEIJING (Reuters) - Parts of North Korea are experiencing their worst levels of hunger in nearly a decade, the U.N. World Food Program said on Wednesday as it called on donors to provide urgent assistance over the next few months.
Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the World Food Program’s (WFP) country director for North Korea, said a food security assessment conducted last month showed that parts of the country could fall into a humanitarian emergency ahead of the autumn harvest.
Millions of people are facing the worst hunger seen since the late 1990s, when famine killed an estimated 1 million people, de Margerie said. The crisis is especially severe in the northeast.
“What is critical for us right now is to be able to address the immediate needs, the needs of average Koreans between now and the end of the lean season,” de Margerie told reporters in Beijing. “This is the period when people are hurting.”
Flooding last year, higher oil and commodity prices and a decline in shipments of aid from countries including South Korea are all adding to the shortfalls, de Margerie said.
He called on international donors to contribute to the $20 million needed to enable the WFP to expand its food distribution to reach 6.4 million of the country’s roughly 23 million people ahead of the autumn harvest, up from the current 1.2 million.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in late March it expects North Korea to have a shortfall of about 1.66 million tonnes in cereals for the year ending in October 2008, the largest deficit in about seven years.
De Margerie said the recent assessment, conducted by the WFP and the FAO, found that more than half of North Korean households had cut the number of meals they eat each day from three to two and close to three-fourths had reduced their food intake.
The price of rice has risen nearly three times over the last year while that of maize has tripled or even quadrupled, he said, adding that the standard government ration in cities had been cut drastically.
Many people are resorting to scavenging for wild fruits and vegetables, including seaweed, grass and roots, contributing to an apparent rise in malnutrition, de Margerie said.
“They’re simply running out of options,” he said.
The WFP recently reached an agreement with the North to allow it to expand its operations. De Margerie estimated that it will need $500 million to carry out its expanded program from September until the end of 2009.
“Basically, we’re moving back to the emergency mode of intervention,” he said.
He acknowledged a pledge by the United States to provide 500,000 tonnes of food to North Korea, 400,000 tonnes of which will be via the WFP and the rest of which will be distributed by U.S. non-governmental organizations.
The first shipment was received late last month, and a second was expected to arrive in the coming weeks, de Margerie said.
He added that there were currently no signs that China had closed its border with North Korea to trade, about which there has been some speculation as the country clamps down on its borders ahead of the Beijing Olympics, which start on August 8.
Some of the WFP’s own aid is shipped across the border between China and the North.
“It has not been closed up to now, which is of some relief to us,” he said.
Reporting by Jason Subler; Editing by Ken Wills