North Korea is facing one of its biggest food shortages in the past decade, with millions of people going hungry because of a poor harvest and a huge drop in donor aid, a U.N. official said. Anthony Banbury, the Asian regional director for the World Food Program who just returned from a six-day trip to North Korea, said officials there told him they faced a food gap of 1 million tons.
He said they requested that the agency expand its assistance - a rare admission and plea for help from the secretive Stalinist regime. 'If donors do not respond to the request, millions of people are going to go hungry,' Banbury told a news conference.
In past years, the WFP fed about 6.5 million people annually in the North, but scaled back its proposed program last year to 1.9 million people after Pyongyang requested in 2005 to switch its emphasis from food aid to development assistance, claiming that food supplies were adequate.
In reality, the Rome-based WFP has since been able to reach only 700,000 people - about 3 percent of the North's population of 23 million - because of its smaller operation and lack of funding.
South Korea plans to hold off on resuming rice shipments until after mid-April to make sure the North carries out its promise to close its main nuclear reactor as part of a landmark Feb. 13 deal crafted during ongoing six-nation disarmament talks.
'We can't wait ... The lean season is upon is,' Banbury said. 'The needs of the people are separate from the political talks. There ought not to be a direct linkage between those talks and the food security situation in the country.'