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North Korea Says Food Stocks Will Be Depleted in Two Weeks

By Kevin Sullivan
The Washington Post

North Korea issued its most dire assessment yet of its food shortages on Monday, saying that a hungry population already living on starvation rations could run out of food in as little as two weeks.

The official state news agency reported that daily rations for most people had already been cut to seven ounces a day, far below what is generally considered necessary for survival. It said that even if that ration is cut in half, "the stock will run out in mid-March."

Because of North Korea's secretive nature, it is virtually impossible to know whether its statements about the shortages are accurate. If true, millions of people could be at immediate risk of famine and starvation. But Pyongyang also is capable of inflating its woes to win international sympathy or even to test the new government that just took office in South Korea.

International aid officials immediately called for the world to react "quickly and generously" to Pyongyang's call for help to avert a "humanitarian catastrophe." The United States, which last month pledged an additional $75 million worth of emergency food aid for North Korea, urged other nations to join the appeal, but said it would not promise any new aid.

South Korea had no immediate official reaction, but Kim Dae Jung, its new president, has indicated he intends to be far more generous than his predecessors in granting humanitarian aid to the Stalinist North, despite South Korea's own financial hardships.

Still, some in South Korea privately said that North Korea's statement could be simply a "public relations ruse" to win more international aid. The situation is delicate for Kim, who must balance his desire for more engagement with the North against the fears of a South Korean population that is deeply skeptical of Pyongyang's motives and honesty.

Although the extent of the immediate problem remains murky, North Korea's chronic food problems are well known. The U.N. World Food Program has been warning for months that last fall's harvest and several large shipments of international aid would run out by spring

Then last month, the United Nations said that food aid alone would not be enough to solve North Korea's problems, so it raised the U.N. program's appeal to $415.6 million to include projects to improve water supply, sanitation and food production.