- SEOUL (Reuters) - Famine-striken North Korea was heading towards a
catastrophe unless it received more assistance from the international community,
senior Red Cross officials said on Thursday. ``Unless North Korea gets
help from outside it is in danger of losing the younger and older generation
due to the lack of nutrition,'' Astrid Heiberg, president of the International
Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told a news conference.
``My call to the world is to continue support to North Korea to avoid catastrophe,''
she said, after a three-day visit to the communist country. The Red Cross
officials in a stop-over in Beijing on Tuesday said famine in North Korea
had spread to government officials, now forced to mix their meagre food
rations with grass and bitter acorns. Floods and drought since 1995 have
devastated North Korean agriculture. Its industry has ground to a halt,
along with foreign trade, leaving the once fiercely self-reliant country
dependent on international handouts. ``The crop will be no better than
last year,'' said Margareta Wahlstrom, the federation's undersecretary
general for disaster relief, who accompanied Heiberg to Pyongyang. ``So
we are not likely to see an improvement in 1999 in the nutrition situation,''
International aid agencies expect the grim situation to continue as the
1998 grain harvest is likely to reach just three million tonnes, or two-thirds
of North Korea's minimum need. About 4.5 million tonnes of grain are required
to feed North Korea's 20 million people, according to the World Food Programme.
Heiberg said the Red Cross planned to raise its aid to North Korea to $9
million next year to double health service activities in the reclusive
nation. The federation has six full-time staff in North Korea and nearly
300,000 volunteers. Heiberg said she had asked North Korean government
officials to facilitate reunions of families separated in the 1950-53 Korean
War. ``We think family reunion is purely humanitarian and should not be
(subject to) political bargaining,'' she said. She also urged South Korean
people to offer assistance to their brethren. ``My hope is that you'd continue
with your generous support even if the political situation is tense and
emotionally difficult,'' she said. The two Koreas remain technically at
war because the Korean Wan conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace
treaty. ($1-1,320 won)