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North Korea’s Growing Rancor May Increase Hunger

North Korea’s rising tensions with South Korea and the United States, coupled with soaring international grain prices and flood damage from last year, will probably take a heavy toll among famine-threatened people in the isolated country, relief experts said Thursday.

The warnings followed a report on Thursday that North Korea’s totalitarian government has suspended distribution of food rations for six months in Pyongyang, home to the country’s most well-off and loyal citizens, in what seems to be a move to save food as the hard-line regime braced for a prolonged standoff with Washington and Seoul over the North’s nuclear program.

Although the state ration system has not functioned well in recent years, the suspension of distributions will force residents of Pyongyang to buy food with their own money and to use any private stockpiles.

The World Food Program, which runs an office in Pyongyang and has been warning of worsening food shortages in the North, could not immediately confirm the report, which was released by Good Friends, a relief group in Seoul that collects data from informants in the North.

“But certainly we are as concerned as others are over the present situation in North Korea,” said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the U.N. agency. He said that the situation is “probably worse” than last year.

A combination of factors makes this year especially harsh for North Koreans, whose isolationist government asked for outside aid in the 1990s only after a famine killed more than 1 million people of an estimated population of 23 million.

MySpace, Record Companies To Create Music Site

In the latest effort by the ailing music industry to bolster its declining prospects, three of the four major music companies have struck a deal with MySpace to start an music Web site.

As part of the deal, MySpace will spin out its popular MySpace Music service as an independent joint venture in partnership with Universal Music, Sony BMG and Warner Music Group. EMI, the fourth major label, is not a part of the deal, but people involved in the negotiations said it would probably join soon. The music companies will own minority stakes in the venture and will make their entire music catalogs available.

Chris DeWolfe, chief executive of MySpace, a division of News Corp., described the new service, which will be introduced later this year, as a one-stop source for all music, in all its digital incarnations.

Visitors to the site will be able to listen to free streaming music, paid for with advertising, and share customized playlists with their friends. They will also be able to download tracks to play on their mobile devices, putting the new site in competition with similar services like Apple, Amazon and eMusic.

A subscription-based music component, where users pay a monthly amount for unlimited access to downloadable tracks, is also being considered, DeWolfe said.

European Plan to Treat Bank Failures Advances

Europe’s finance ministers are expected to agree on Friday to guidelines for handling cross-border banking failures, their first steps to address potential threats brought on by the tight credit markets.

In a sign of the growing concern over the international banking system, European ministers will sign an agreement promising deeper European cooperation, and establishing principles to be applied when a financial institution operating in different countries faces difficulties.

However, the document will not propose creation of a European regulator or lay down strict rules. Instead, it will bind the national authorities to favor private-sector rescues where possible, and urge them to decide in advance who would pay the bill for banks that operate in more than one country if a state bailout is required.

The memorandum of understanding, to be signed at a meeting in Slovenia, highlights the mounting concern about the health of the banking system in the aftermath of the American subprime mortgage collapse.

Financial integration increases “the likelihood of a systemic crisis affecting more than one member state,” said a draft of the document obtained by the International Herald Tribune.

Banks have had to write down an estimated $200 billion or more in debt after mortgage defaults in the United States led to a tighter credit market and caused a liquidity crisis.

Cargo Ship From Europe Joins Station in Space

Europe’s new Jules Verne cargo ship made a nearly flawless first docking at the International Space Station on Thursday, carrying tons of needed supplies and expanding Europe’s role in space.

The robotic spacecraft, gingerly approaching the station at one-tenth of a foot per second, docked with the space station at 10:45 a.m. Eastern time while the two vehicles flew more than 200 miles above the Atlantic Ocean. Seven minutes later, a series of clamps firmly secured the vehicles.

“We have contact,” the Russian astronaut Col. Yuri I. Malenchenko said from inside the space station, where he and the American commander of the station, Peggy A. Whitson, were monitoring the operation. The comment brought applause and cheers from the cargo craft’s European control center in Toulouse, France.

The Jules Verne, named after the visionary French science-fiction author, is the first of a new class of station supply ships called Automatic Transfer Vehicles. The craft was built by the nations of the European Space Agency as one of Europe’s major contributions to the international station.