More than 6 million people in North Korea urgently need food aid because of substantial falls in domestic production, food imports and international aid, the United Nations said on Friday.
In a report released after a joint mission to the reclusive communist state, where a famine in the 1990s killed an estimated 1 million people, three UN agencies said North Korea's public distribution system would run out of food at the beginning of the lean season that runs between May and July.
The agencies, which visited North Korea for a month between February and March, said the country had suffered a series of shocks in recent months, leaving it "highly vulnerable to a food crisis" and threatening a quarter of its 24 million people.
The report will add pressure for the full resumption of international food aid to North Korea amid a standoff with the West over Pyongyang's nuclear programmes and accusations that North Korea was behind two attacks on South Korea last year.
Notably, Pyongyang has asked the United States to resume food aid which was suspended in 2008 over a monitoring row. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, World Food Programme and Unicef recommended providing 434,000 tonnes of food aid for 6.1 million people. They added that children, women and the elderly were among the most vulnerable in a country suffering from chronic food shortages and malnutrition.
The report put North Korea's cereal import requirement at 1,086,000 tonnes for the 2010/11 marketing year, up from 867,000 tonnes anticipated in a November 2010 assessment.
By contrast, the report said the government now planned to import only 200,000 tonnes of cereals -- a reduction of 125,000 from what Pyongang had announced in October 2010 -- due to reduced export earnings and higher food and fuel prices.
Aid groups have warned for months that North Korea faces renewed food shortages due to bad weather that has damaged harvests and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. In November, a U.N. report said some 5 million people were at risk. However, experts and officials disagree over whether the impoverished state is actually experiencing worsening shortages.
Officials in South Korea say pleas for food by the diplomatically isolated North are suspicious. They say Pyongyang is not trying to meet spot demand but to stock up on food ahead of massive celebrations next year, the centenary of state founder Kim Il-sung's birth.
They also accuse North Korea of trying to hoard food ahead of a third nuclear test, which would likely provoke a further tightening of international sanctions.
Critics of food aid say North Korea in the past siphoned off the food to feed its million-strong army, missing its intended recipients, the general population and the most needy.