|BEIJING - Nearly four million North Koreans will be deprived of U.N. food rations by February if foreign donors do not provide more aid to the communist state, the head of the U.N. World Food Programme said on Saturday.|
The comments by WFP Executive Director James Morris followed an emergency appeal last week for $171 million worth of rations to feed 6.5 million North Koreans, mostly women and children, plagued by years of hunger compounded by shock price reforms.
With the timing of a second round of six-way negotiations to curtail North Korea\'s nuclear arms programme still uncertain, Chinese and U.S. officials met in Beijing on Friday to discuss the way forward.
In Moscow, the Itar-Tass news agency quoted a high-ranking Russian diplomatic source as saying there was still a chance a new round of talks might take place before the end of the year.
The WFP says it needs the $171 million to offset a drop in contributions, which in 2003 has already forced the WFP to cut off rations to several million North Koreans fed by the agency since the mid-1990s.
\"We are about 60 percent resourced for this year,\" Morris told a news conference in Beijing. \"And that means in January we\'ll probably stop feeding about three million people.\"
He said a gift from Russia would help sustain the food pipeline for about a month, but, without additional support, the number of North Koreans affected would rise to \"something in the neighbourhood of 3.8 million people\" from February.
North Korea has suffered food shortages since at least 1995, when it first appealed for aid after floods compounded years of economic mismanagement and the loss of its main patron, the Soviet Union.
Since last year, donor fatigue has been exacerbated by North Korea\'s political isolation over its attempts to build nuclear weapons, and by U.S. suspicions that food aid is diverted away from the needy to the country\'s military and political elite.
China hosted a initial round of inconclusive talks with the United States, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia in August, and has been trying to bring the parties together for a follow-up round.
After months of intensive efforts, the United States and its partners in negotiations over North Korea\'s nuclear programme acknowledged this week that they were unable to arrange a second round of talks for this month.
But despite delays that have pushed any possibility of fresh six-party talks into 2004, a senior U.S. official said on Friday it was too early to say diplomatic efforts had failed.
\"Moscow is ready to hold a new round before the end of the year,\" the Russian diplomatic source was quoted as saying by Itar-Tass. There \"was still a chance\" this might happen, it said. A duty officer at the Russian foreign ministry said he could offer no comment on the Tass report.
Food aid to North Korea from the United States, which averaged 155,000 tonnes of food a year, dropped to 40,000 tonnes in 2003, Morris said.
Last week, the WFP pressed the United States to release an additional 60,000 tonnes of food pledged but held up because Pyongyang has yet to let donors track its distribution and allow access to malnourished people in all parts of the country.
\"We desperately need that and hope that it will come,\" Morris said of the U.S. pledge.
He North Korea has failed to provide a list of beneficiary institutions it once promised and still bars the WFP from more than 40 out of its 206 counties where about 15 percent of North Korea\'s 23 million people live.
\"The issues are not essentially political issues or military issues or nuclear issues,\" Morris said. \"They\'re issues of North Korea\'s need to be accountable, accessible and transparent like every other country we serve.\"
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE