Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed for funds Monday to "avert a major humanitarian crisis" in North Korea and create better conditions to peacefully resolve the nuclear standoff.

Annan's urgent appeal followed talks with his personal envoy, Maurice Strong, who visited North Korea last month and told the secretary-general that desperately needed food and medicine will soon be unavailable.

After his visit, Strong warned that the pipeline of food and medicine that 6 to 8 million North Koreans depended on was drying up and there was "an urgent need to keep that pipeline flowing."

North Korea has been relying on outside aid since the mid-1990s to help feed its 22 million people.

For the first quarter of the year, Strong said, the World Food Program urgently needs 97,000 tons of food aid. For the rest of the year, North Korea will need some $250 million in aid, but the world community has put forth just $10 million, he said.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said Monday that a review by top U.N. experts confirmed Strong's assessment that exceptional action is needed because of the humanitarian situation facing the country.

"To prevent an impending tragedy, the secretary-general has decided to seek additional donor support to ensure, at least for the next several months, that the humanitarian pipeline ... does not dry up," Eckhard said.

"This would avert a major humanitarian crisis and would also create conditions more conducive to the peaceful resolution of the current political standoff," he said.

The United States has said it would consider food and other economic aid if North Korea dismantles its nuclear programs. North Korea has rejected the offer as a precondition for talks and has said the United States is insincere.

The standoff began in October, when U.S. officials said North Korea had admitted having a nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement.

Washington and its allies suspended oil shipments to North Korea, which in turn expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors, withdrew from a global nuclear arms control treaty and said it would reactivate its main nuclear complex. That raised fears it will start to develop nuclear weapons.

North Korea accuses the United States of escalating the standoff as a pretext to invade the country. Washington insists it wants a peaceful solution to the crisis.