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Starved N Koreans eating grass to survive

Workers plant rice into an irrigated field.  The WFP says North Koreans face a lean period ahead
Workers plant rice into an irrigated field. The WFP says North Koreans face a lean period ahead  

BEIJING, China (CNN) -- A severe shortage of food aid is forcing hungry North Koreans to scrounge for grass and seaweed, the United Nations says.

Warning of a new threat of famine in the communist country, the U.N.'s World Food Programme says hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are abandoning work and school in a desperate effort to stave off hunger.

"They're going up into the mountains in search of edible grasses. They're on the beaches collecting seaweed," WFP spokesman Gerald Bourke said in Beijing after visiting North Korea.

"Teachers say attendance at school is down because children are out collecting wild foods. Teachers themselves and so-called caregivers at kindergartens, nurseries and the like are having to take time off from work for the same reason."

The WFP was forced to temporarily suspend distribution of food aid to around 1.2 million secondary school children, elderly people, caregivers and teachers between May and August because of a lack of pledges from donor nations, Bourke said.

Distribution projects to 500,000 North Korean workers have also been cut back.

More needed

The U.N. agency supplies food to about 6.4 million of North Korea's 23 million people and aims to make up nearly half of the reclusive state's food shortfall in 2002 -- about 611,000 tons.

Despite a pledge of 100,000 metric tons of wheat, rice and dairy products from the United States earlier this month, North Korea faces a chronic food situation until more donations fill the food pipeline in August, Bourke said.

Crops planted in the spring are also beginning to ripen, but this is expected to make up only around a tenth of North Korea's food needs, he added.

Six countries -- the United States, South Korea, Germany, Australia, Cuba and Finland -- have contributed to the WPF program in North Korea in 2002.

Japan -- North Korea's largest donor in 2001, contributing more than half of all WPF food to the communist state -- has yet to make a pledge this year.

Chronic malnutrition

Estimates indicate that almost half of children under five are chronically malnourished
Estimates indicate that almost half of children under five are chronically malnourished  

North Korea's food shortage started in 1991, when the former Soviet Union collapsed and its satellite states stopped sending food and other economic aid. Since 1995, floods, droughts and tropical storms have exacerbated the country's agricultural and industrial problems.

Aid agencies estimate that hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have died of famine, malnutrition and related diseases since the mid-1990s.

The food crisis and claims of political repression are spurring an exodus of refugees, with tens of thousands sneaking into China to escape hunger, analysts say. A recent series of embarrassing defections at foreign missions in China have further highlighted the hardship faced by many North Koreans.

Official North Korean estimates indicated that 45 percent of children under five are chronically malnourished.

Though government food rations had increased in June to an average of 350 grams per person a day from 250 grams in May because of a good harvest of vegetables, wheat and barley, this figure is about half the minimum recommended level.

Bourke said that during his one-week visit, only a handful of students in a class of third graders in the eastern city of Kimchaek had eaten meat in the last month, instead relying on a basic staple of maize.

"Their were 25 pupils and only three of them has any meat in the last month," Bourke said. "Very occasionally an egg, a little bit of vegetable and that's it."


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