N. Korea Faces Catastrophe Without Immediate Food Aid - Red Cross

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,'' she said.

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)