Food crisis worsening, says UN official


North Korea has fallen deeper into famine, a leading official of the UN World Food Programme said yesterday after a five-day tour of the country. Crops now being harvested "will be between two million and 2.5 million tonnes short" of demand, the deputy executive director of the WFP, Mr Namanga Ngongi, said, citing a "compounding deficit" from three consecutive years of failed harvests.

The shortfall - substantially up from last year's 1.3 million tonnes - will make starvation in the run-up to the 1998 autumn harvest more severe than it was this summer, he said.

Because the population and agriculture are already in a weakened state, "we will see much more serious repercussions" if crop failures strike again next year, he said.

Two years of floods in 1995 to 1996 devastated the country's agricultural production, which this year suffered as a result of searing drought, tidal waves and typhoons.

Mr Ngoni's visit came just before the WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organisation jointly begin their formal assessment of the current North Korean harvest. Results of the assessment will determine how large a food aid appeal the WFP will issue to donor nations.

During last week's visit - which focused on southern parts of North Korea and western coastal areas - Mr Ngongi said the condition of children observed showed improvements despite declining agricultural performance.

"In a nutshell, I would say food aid has made a difference," he said, adding that between 700,000 and 800,000 tonnes of international food aid had been distributed and consumed in the country.

The situation clearly remained "serious", however, with 20 to 25 per cent of children that could be observed appearing malnourished, he said.

North Korea's daily individual rice ration had dropped from 700 grammes (24.5 oz) to 100 grammes (3.5 oz).

Gastro-intestinal problems caused by prolonged consumption of difficult-to-digest "alternative" foods such as bark and leaves were increasing, Mr Ngongi added.

He expressed scepticism about reports that the famine had claimed more than one million lives, saying that death on that scale would be too difficult to hide in a small country of just 23 million people.

North Korean official media has also denied a report in a Hong Kong daily that more than a million people had died of hunger. Last Tuesday, the South China Morning Post quoted North Korean refugees as saying that at least one million people have starved to death in the country. The following day, the paper cited a North Korean military officer as saying people were turning to cannibalism to survive the famine and that people had been executed for selling human flesh.

Meanwhile, a Pyongyang diplomat in Beijing has said the late Kim Il-Sung's son and heir, Mr Kim Jong-Il, will be formally elevated to general secretary of the ruling Korean Workers' Party on Thursday. The long-awaited inauguration of North Korea's de facto ruler will fill the post left vacant by the death of Kim senior in 1994 and complete the first dynastic succession in communist history.

Apricot and pear trees are blooming in autumn at factory sites in North Korea and fishermen have caught a rare, albino sea cucumber, and that can mean only one thing, according to Pyongyang's state media - Kim Jong-il has the mandate of heaven to succeed his father as undisputed leader.