Flooding this year and last created food shortages that have left nearly all 24 million North Koreans on the brink of starvation, U.N. officials say. For the first time, the isolated communist state that preaches self-reliance publicly requested outside help.
''Our people are very grateful to governments of different countries, international bodies, nongovernmental organizations and individuals, for their assistance to flood-hit Korea,'' said North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency.
The agency said that 40,000 tons of new food aid arrived between Aug. 20 and Sept. 11 and was distributed to the flood-hit areas.
The food was donated by the U.N. World Food Program, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Roman Catholic charity Caritas and other organizations, it said. The United States donated $6.2 million to help the World Food Program buy food.
U.N. officials estimate that North Korea will need 600,000 tons of grain in outside aid to meet minimum nutritional needs this year.
Severe flooding buried large stretches of farmland under mud and gravels last summer. Floods also swept thousands of acres this summer, destroying crops before harvest time.
The food crisis and other economic problems in North Korea have led to an increase in defections. South Korea said Saturday it plans to build a refugee center to provide shelter and job training for defectors.
''The number of North Korean defectors continues to rise. We need a systematic way of helping them settle down in the South,'' said Moon Mu-hong of the Ministry of National Unification.
Fewer than a dozen North Koreans a year defected to South Korea until 1992, but the number surged to 100 for the past two years. Thirty have fled south so far this year.
Legislation expected to be approved later this year in the National Assembly would require defectors to receive job training at the shelter for one year. The government would then provide them with assistance for two more years, including finding jobs and housing.
Lacking job skills, many defectors have failed to assimilate into capitalist South Korea, some resorting to crime.
The two Koreas remain bitter enemies following their 1950-53 Korean War that ended without a peace treaty.
=A9 Copyright 1996 The Associated Press