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(IPS) BANGKOK --
Korea's desperate need to feed its citizens has prompted a United Nations agency to warn of a "humanitarian crisis" looming up in the months ahead.
The price of basic food items in Pyongyang, the country's capital, offers a stark picture of the reality average workers face when buying provisions. A kg of rice currently sells at 2,000 North Korean won (14 U.S. dollars), up from 700-900 won a year ago, while maize costs 600 won ($4.20) per kg, up from 350 won for the same amount in April 2007, states the World Food Program (WFP).
Other staples, such as pork, potatoes and eggs have also risen so much that these items are a "luxury for most people," adds the WFP. A kg of pork now sells at 5,500 won ($35), almost touching the average monthly wage in the Stalinist nation -- 6,000 won ($42).
"Now it takes a third of a month's salary just to buy a few days worth of rice," said Jean-Pierre de Margerie, WFP country director in Pyongyang, in a statement. "Families and especially vulnerable persons will suffer from lack of access to food, eat fewer meals and have a poorer diet, increasing their vulnerability to disease and illness."
A miserable domestic agriculture harvest in 2007 due to heavy floods in August is being fingered for the spike in the price of food and severe food shortages. "Based on the most recent government estimates, total cereal production in 2007 is about three million tons, a significant reduction from the four million tons of the previous year" states the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The country saw a drastic drop in maize -- 650,000 tons less, 33 percent down from the previous year -- and rice -- 400,000 tons less, or 25 percent down from the previous year, adds the Rome-based UN agency. "With this low 2007 production, the cereal deficit for the 2007/2008 marketing year is estimated at 1.6 million tons.'
"That is the largest gap in the country since 2001,' Paul Risley, Asia spokesperson for the WFP, said in an interview. "External assistance will be needed to bridge this gap.'
But such an urgent need for food aid to a country that has long depended on similar assistance could not have come at a worst time. The rapid global price hike of commodities, including rice, poses a challenge that relief agencies like the WFP did not have to deal with when buying rice and other cereals in previous years to feed North Korea's most vulnerable people.
The WFP feeds close to a million people out of the country's 23 million population in a program that began in 1998. To meet the new challenges posed by the spike in global food prices, the WFP is appealing for a further $15.9 million to add to the $26.5 million estimated to fund its North Korea program.
"If we are lucky, we will be able to provide 75,000 tons of food, which is less than five percent of the total shortfall for this year,' says Risley.