Private Groups Ask U.S. Food Aid for N. Koreans: Official Cites `Serious' Famine Threat

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North Korea is facing "serious and immediate" threat of famine, said a senior State Department official yesterday, and the U.S. government is considering an appeal for nearly 2 million tons of emergency grain.

"Signs of malnutition are surfacing," said Chuck Kartman, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia, after meeting several representatives of nongovernmental organizations and private relief agencies yesterday.

The food shortage resulting from massive flooding and a hailstorm in 1995, compounded by poor agricultural practices, "could take famine proportions," said Don Krumm of the advocacy group Refugees International, formerly a State Department emergency operations director.

North Korea needs 2.3 million tons of food between May and September, enough to feed 6 million people, if massive deaths from starvation are to be averted, Mr. Krumm said.

"The farm animals are missing - we presume they were all slaughtered," Mr. Krumm said.

"The situation is urgent and critical. We call on the United States to exert global leadership to avert disaster." He said it would take four months to gear up food deliveries and that deaths would begin in April or May unless food arrives.

"Our own analysis of the situation in North Korea is not too different," said Mr. Kartman. "Over the next few weeks we will decide what to do next."

He specifcally rejected tying food aid to political, economic or military concessions by the Pyongyang regime, which is one of the last, isolated, Stalinist-style dictatorships in the world.

Andrew Natsios, former Reagan administration director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and now with World Vision relief agency, said that the United States has a long tradition of aiding people in need of food no matter what the political relations are with their nation.

American aid flowed to Iran, Iraq and Sudan to avert starvation or after disasters, he said.

He noted that when food aid was denied to Ethiopia to prevent it from supporting the communist-style regime of Haile Mariam Mengistu, "over a million people died. …