North Korea has relied on foreign aid to feed its 23 million people since disclosing in the mid-1990s that its government-run farm system had collapsed. A resulting famine is believed to have killed some 2 million people. The WFP tries to feed about 6.5 million North Koreans — more than a quarter of the population.
"My sense is that we have a crisis in front of us that requires the international community to respond and provide resources so that we can do our work," said James T. Morris, executive director of the U.N. (search) agency.
Morris said the communist country had forecast growth of 3 percent in farm production this year, a figure the agency doubts will be achieved.
"Our conversations with people throughout the country suggest that's not likely to materialize," Morris said. "Earlier this year, the price of maize and wheat was increasing rapidly."
Morris said rising food prices, the government's limited experiments with market reforms as well as reduced aid from overseas have all aggravated the crisis.
The reforms, which include allowing farmers to sell part of what they grow, "have had some positive impact on small farmers but a very negative impact on people in urban areas and people who work in industrial areas," Morris said.
While the price of produce has shot up, wages have stayed the same for city dwellers and factory workers, he said.
In addition, the amount of livestock managed by North Korean households declined from last year, and the WFP noted a substantial increase in people foraging and gathering wild food, nuts and roots in May and June, Morris said.
Energy shortages are also harming food production by making it hard for farmers to operate mechanized equipment and produce fertilizer, Morris said.
Many analysts believe the North's acute need for energy prompted it to return last month to international talks in Beijing aimed at getting it to abandon nuclear weapons development.
The participants — China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States — went into recess Sunday and will reconvene in the Chinese capital later this month.
Morris said there is evidence that the overall situation in North Korea has improved in recent years, citing "astounding progress" in child nutrition.
Some 7 percent of children under age 7 suffered from acute malnutrition in 2004, he said, compared with 9 percent in 2002 and 16 percent in 1998.
The number of chronically malnourished children had also fallen to 37 percent in 2004, compared with 42 percent in 2002 and 62 percent in 1998.