By Benjamin Kang Lim
BEIJING, July 26 (Reuters) - North Korea's food crisis has worsened and neighbouring China is bracing for more hungry refugees, aid workers said.
The impoverished Communist state has suffered persistent food shortages, although conditions appear to have improved since famine caused by drought and flooding in the mid- and late-1990s led to the deaths of more than a million people.
"The limited availability of local food, the very rapid inflation in private markets and limited supplies in the hands of WFP (World Food Programme) -- that combination of factors is very ominous," WFP spokesman Gerald Bourke said in an interview on Tuesday.
"We are concerned that an already severe food crisis will deteriorate further," said Bourke, just returned to Beijing after a 10-day trip to North Korea.
Asked if North Korea's return to six-party nuclear talks would convince donors such as the United States to make new aid pledges, he said: "Anything which improves the atmosphere we hope will be conducive to the supply of additional contributions."
The pressing food shortage is seen as partially contributing to Pyongyang's decision to resume talks aimed at defusing a crisis over its nuclear ambitions.
The talks which began in Beijing on Tuesday also involve South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and China.
North Korean refugees who fled to China recently confirmed that the situation at home was deteriorating, an aid worker in China's northeastern Jilin province told Reuters.
"The food situation in North Korea is at its worst since the 1997 famine," said the aid worker who requested anonymity. "We have the most refugees ever in this area," he said.
North Korea cut daily food rations to 250 grams (8.8 ounces) per person in January, just half the minimum energy requirement, from 300 grams (10.6 ounces) last year. In early July, rations were slashed further in many places to 200 grams (7 ounces) per person per day, but were increased again in mid-month.
China is bracing for more refugees spilling across the 1,400-km (850-mile) border and has stepped up military patrols in the area. Notice boards erected outside police stations in Chinese border villages warn Korean-Chinese not to help their North Korean cousins.
North Korea's food shortage is chronic, with a substantial gap between domestic production and requirement. The country is mountainous and only 16 percent of its land is arable.
WFP aims to collect 504,000 tonnes of food, including cereals, pulses and vegetable oil, worth $200 million for North Korea this year. It has secured only 270,000 tonnes so far.
"The public distribution system is providing less, market prices of staples are much higher and continuing to rise," Bourke said. "They are relying more and more on wild foods, foraging for wild foods in the countryside, the woodlands, grasses, ferns, brackens, acorns, mushrooms," he added.
North Korea is also afflicted by a shortage of fertiliser and farm machinery. And an energy crisis means North Korea lacks the fuel to run irrigation systems or power tractors.
Economic reforms could mean light at the end of the tunnel.
"North Korea needs a very dramatic economic transformation. It needs substantial investments in all areas of the economy," Bourke said. "If it is not able to produce enough food to feed its people, it needs to be able to generate foreign exchange that will allow it to import the balance of food that it needs."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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