By Juliana Liu
BEIJING (Reuters) - A U.N. special envoy headed to North Korea on Tuesday to assess humanitarian conditions a day after Washington said it had cut off food aid to the impoverished nation plagued by years of drought and famine.
Maurice Strong, dispatched by secretary-general Kofi Annan, told reporters in Beijing there was a very real prospect of a severe food shortage in the next few months.
"The pipeline is drying up and unless new humanitarian supplies start to move quickly, there could be a significant crisis in March or April," Strong told reporters before boarding a plane to Pyongyang.
The United States said it had cut off food aid until North Korea accepted the monitoring safeguards Washington applied elsewhere and said the stoppage was unrelated to the intense diplomatic standoff over the North's nuclear ambitions.
Strong's warning contradicted comments by Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who said on Monday the United States had cut off shipments of food aid at the end of 2002 and played down the threat of renewed famine.
Natsios said the cut should not create a food emergency because the North had been free of famine since 1998 and had actually increased domestic food production last year.
North Korea's distribution of food aid and limits on international aid monitors, long a thorny issue for donors, has become an increasingly sticky point as tensions escalate over Pyongyang's nuclear aims.
CALL FOR BETTER ACCESS
Natsios said U.S. food shipments through the United Nations had ended on December 31 and would resume only after North Korea agreed to U.S. conditions for ensuring the distribution scheme was not politicised or corrupt.
North Korea is heavily reliant on food aid from the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) and other international agencies to feed its 23 million people after years of crop failures, bad weather and economic mismanagement.
South Korean aid agencies have alleged that food shipments were not getting to the neediest people and some critics have said the aid had been channelled to the North's one million strong army.
U.N. officials last week said, however, that food was going to the right places as far as they could tell and access, although limited, had increased consistently since the WFP operations began in 1995.
But Rick Corsino, head of the WFP in Pyongyang, said a further decline in international aid donations could lead Pyongyang to cut back on access, affecting its monitoring ability.
The WFP has been feeding 6.4 million children, elderly and pregnant and nursing mothers, but the decline in donations last year forced it to cut off aid to 2.9 million of them, Corsino said.
Strong, who has been involved in humanitarian operations in North Korea in the past, probably would stay in Pyongyang about a week, an aide told Reuters.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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