N. Korea Caught in Food Crisis

BEIJING -- Flooding and poor harvests have caused North Korea's worst food crisis since the late 1990s and have put millions at risk, the United Nations' food body said Wednesday.

The World Food Program said North Korea's food shortage has worsened this year after floods in 2007, followed by poor harvests, leading to the threat of widespread malnutrition.

"Millions of vulnerable North Koreans are at risk of slipping toward precarious hunger levels. The last time hunger was so deep and so widespread in parts of the country was in the late 1990s," Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the WFP's country director for North Korea, told a news conference.

The WFP had been given permission to launch a widespread new operation to target those most vulnerable in eight of the country's 10 provinces, or 6.4 million people, up from a current 1.2 million. An international appeal for aid would be launched in the next two weeks.

While 400,000 metric tons of U.S. food aid have already shipped, there is an urgent need for $20 million to get through the next autumn harvest, de Margerie said.

The amount of food given in government rations to urban dwellers has fallen in the last few months, as prices for staple goods have risen because of less internal transfers of food. Rice now costs almost three times more than it did a year ago, he said. But salaries for Koreans have remained stagnant.