BEIJING, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Improved harvests and donations have eased North Korea's food shortage, but dire fuel and medicine shortfalls haunt the population as winter descends upon the impoverished state, a senior U.N. official said on Tuesday.
David Morton, U.N. humanitarian coordinator in North Korea, said a chronic energy shortage and sub-zero temperatures made staying warm in heatless factories, homes and schools a daily struggle in the country of 22.5 million people.
"The hospitals that we go to, it's often warmer to talk to the medical staff outside rather than inside," Morton told reporters in Beijing shortly after arriving from Pyongyang.
The fuel shortages, coupled with similarly drastic shortages of medicine and fertiliser, meant the health of North Koreans was precarious even though the reclusive Stalinist state had recovered slightly from the 1996-97 peak of its food crisis.
"The peak has passed and the food situation has improved somewhat since then as a result of better harvests in 1998 and 1999 and also because of the effects of very large quantities of food and other aid," Morton said.
"But the crisis is by no means over," he said.
"In fact, on the health situation, we see a deterioration in the delivery of health services and in the condition of people."
He said care was hard to come by in hospitals with no heat, no clean drinking water and no medicine, while fuel shortages made it hard for North Koreans even to reach medical centres.
Sickly and malnourished mothers were giving birth to underweight children, threatening more stunting and retarded mental development as detected in earlier surveys, he said.
VICIOUS CIRCLE OF ILLNESS AND HUNGER
Morton was the second U.N. official in just over a week to emerge from North Korea with grim accounts of conditions in the staunchly Communist state where floods and drought from the mid-1990s caused hundreds of thousands of starvation deaths.
Last week an official of the United Nations Children's Fund said inadequate funding was hampering U.N. efforts to provide crucial vaccinations and medicine and threatened a majority of children with potentially deadly diseases.
A crop assessment issued last month by the U.N. World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated North Korea would have a grain shortfall of 1.29 million tonnes and a deficit in other food of 993,000 tonnes in the coming year.
North Korea had doubled its use of fertiliser between 1998 and 1999, but still met less than a third of its needs, it said.
"The nutritional situation remains fragile, with a vicious circle of poor nutrition compounding poor health and vice versa becoming deeply entrenched," the report said.
Morton said the government showed few signs of tinkering with its rigid state-controlled economy.
"We don't see much progress there," he said in response to a question about economic reform and recovery in North Korea.
Potential help for the North's comatose economy was on the horizon, however, with South Korean investors showing interest in North Korean projects and Japan's decision to lift sanctions set after Pyongyang launched a missile across its territory in 1998.
Speaking before Japan announced on Tuesday it would lift sanctions and resume aid, Morton said such a move "can only be a good thing". He cited rice and high-protein foods as the most desirable aid from Tokyo.
There were no signs of popular discontent in North Korea despite widespread suffering visible even in Pyongyang, he said.
The North Korean government had stated the population was 22.5 million last year, far off projections from a 1993 census which put the 1998 population at 23.5 million, Morton said.
While United States congressional reports have put the number of deaths from famine and related illnesses since 1995 as high as two million, he said the death toll was unknown.
"What we can be sure of is that the last few years have taken their toll," he said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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