updated 1/27/2005 5:24:20 PM ET 2005-01-27T22:24:20

The World Food Program on Thursday appealed for 500,000 tons of aid to feed 6.5 million North Koreans this year, warning that the North still faces severe shortages as world attention focuses on helping tsunami survivors.

North Koreans’ ability to feed themselves has been hurt by soaring prices as the communist government opens private markets in an effort to diversify its economy, the U.N. agency said.

“Millions of children, women and elderly people are barely subsisting because they lack both the quantity and quality of nourishment they deserve,” the WFP’s director in North Korea, Richard Ragan, said in a statement by the agency.

North Korea has relied on foreign aid to feed many of its 23.7 million people since its state-run farm system collapsed in the mid-1990s.

The latest WFP appeal comes as tsunami relief efforts receive hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

‘Aid pie’ only so big
“The aid pie is limited, and donors have been very generous in their response to the tsunami appeal,” said Gerald Burke, a WFP spokesman in Beijing. “But they also always have been very generous to WFP appeals for North Korea, and we sincerely hope this appeal will be fully met.”

Efforts to attract donations for North Korea have been complicated in the past by tensions over its nuclear program and competing needs for aid in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Despite the nuclear tensions, North Korea’s main donors have been the United States, Japan and rival South Korea — all participants in the six-nation talks aimed at persuading Pyongyang to abandon nuclear development.

North Korea’s grain crop is expected to rise by 2.4 percent this year to 4.24 million tons — its biggest in a decade but still far below the 5.13 million tons needed, WFP said.

Two-thirds of North Koreans depend on government rations that supply just nine ounces of food a day, “enough to meet only half their calorie needs,” the WFP statement said.

Official warns on shortfall
WFP stockpiles of food in the North should last through June, the statement said.

“But without additional pledges soon, the kind of distribution cuts that have plagued our operation over the past three years, depriving millions of vital assistance for long periods, will be inevitable,” Ragan was quoted as saying.

The agency said the secretive North Korean government still bars WFP employees from visiting 49 of the North’s 203 counties and districts, home to about 17 percent of its population. The agency doesn’t distribute food in areas that its staff can’t visit.

Those targeted for aid this year include 900,000 elderly people, as well as children, pregnant women and some 360,000 people who no longer can afford food as a result of economic reforms, the agency said.

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