DPRK

U.N. Man: Help N. Korea Hunger

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By ELAINE KURTENBACH

BEIJING (AP) -- Almost all of North Korea's 24 million people are suffering from prolonged, severe hunger, particularly the children and elderly who are most vulnerable to disease and starvation, a U.N. official said today.

Famine in the isolated communist country may grow more severe next year unless there is an immediate infusion of aid, warned Robert Hauser, of the World Food Program's office in North Korea.

Severe flooding and landslides in the past two years have led to poorer and poorer harvests and hastened a long-term decline in North Korea's ability to feed itself.

Its people are ''getting less and less and less to eat. This is a disaster of the whole nation,'' Hauser said.

The situation will remain critical until the end of November, when the government distributes what is left of the fall harvest. But another ''hunger gap'' is certain after those supplies are exhausted and before the next crops ripen, he said.

Thousands of people died in the flooding. So far, there have been no official reports of deaths from starvation.

But the persistent food shortages threaten the growth and health of the children and have left the rest of the people exhausted and weak, Hauser said.

Foreign officials who recently visited North Korea reported seeing children with distended bellies, jutting rib cages and skinny limbs deformed by rickets. The elderly, some of whom give their own rations to the children, are even thinner.

There are indications that conditions may be worse still in the remote mountainous areas that cover much of the country.

The World Food Program, which is providing food aid to children and farmers in some parts of the country, has only received 60 percent of the $25.9 million -- the equivalent of 70,550 tons of grain and blended foods -- it has pledged.

Hauser issued an urgent appeal for more aid, noting that even a total fulfillment of the WFP's goal would cover only a quarter of those most affected by the floods.

The United States, Japan and South Korea are among those who have provided aid to North Korea.

In the long run, the country needs technical assistance, foreign investment and transfers of technology to help revitalize its collective farm system, Hauser said.

Such help has been slow in arriving, both because of North Korea's national ideology of self-reliance and international objections to its secretive, Stalinist-style government.

Only 20 percent of North Korea is arable land. Crop yields are dropping because of severe erosion and shortages of fertilizer and organic material in the soil. The country has no cash to pay for imported food.

In recent years, North Korea has been able to produce only 3.5 million tons of staple grains for its people, well below the 4.8 million tons required to meet minimum nutritional needs, the U.N. estimates.

A U.N. report estimated that 360,000 tons of rice, 92,000 tons of maize and 373,000 tons of cereals would be lost because of this year's flooding.

As emergency measures, the North has cut grain rations to less than half the minimum amount needed and slaughtered all but its breeding livestock.

=A9 Copyright 1996 The Associated Press