ROME, 29 July 2002 -- Despite improved harvests this year, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea urgently needs fresh pledges of external assistance to help plug a food gap threatening millions of its most vulnerable citizens ahead of the main harvests in September/October.

"Food aid shipments must be increased to prevent the poorest sections of the population from facing extreme hardship in the coming months," the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) warned in a joint report. "The safety net being provided by targeted food assistance cannot be removed at this stage without a sharp rise in malnutrition."

The DPRK has suffered widespread food shortages for many years, with natural disasters such as floods and droughts aggravating the adverse effects of a dire shortage of arable land and agricultural inputs, poor soils, severe economic problems and infrastructural deficiencies.

Improved yields due to relatively good weather saw production of winter/spring wheat, barley and potatoes reach 441,000 tonnes of cereal equivalent, two-and-a-half times last year's drought-affected output of 172,000 tonnes and 34 per cent higher than the previous four years' average of 328,000 tonnes.

As a result, FAO and WFP are forecasting total domestic production in the 2001/02 marketing year (November-October) at 3.66 million tonnes of cereal equivalent, 42 per cent up on the estimated 2000/01 outturn of 2.57 million tonnes. Rations channeled to over 15 million non-farm consumers through the government-run Public Distribution System have risen by 48 per cent this year to 292 grams per person per day, and more food is available in markets in most parts of the country.

Nonetheless, because the country's domestic production remains well below minimum consumption requirements, its capacity to import commercially is limited and pledges of aid by the international community have been slow in coming this year, the DPRK faces an uncovered food deficit of 382,000 tonnes for July-October.

The UN agencies expressed concern at the "continuing significant disparities in access to food, the worst affected being urban populations in general, those living in food-deficit areas of the north and northeast, and certain particularly vulnerable groups such as children, pregnant and lactating women, and the elderly".

The report noted that these disparities have been exacerbated by the downturn in food aid contributions. "In May, WFP was unable to commence essential lean season distributions to the elderly and caregivers in institutions, and was forced to curtail distributions to secondary school children in the six most food-insecure provinces." More than one million of WFP's 6.4 million beneficiaries were directly affected.

"Further reductions in its programme will be inevitable unless urgent action is taken within the donor community to mobilize additional resources." WFP, which is assisting those who cannot meet their basic food needs on their own, requires additional pledges totalling 127,518 tonnes to be able to implement its programme for the remainder of the calendar year.

FAO/WFP cautioned that low temperatures and inadequate water supplies may have affected the main rice and maize crops, and noted that the size of these harvests would be largely determined by the amount of rain received in July-August, the peak precipitation period.

A decaying irrigation system and lack of fertilizers continue to be major constraints to increased production. "The outlook beyond this season remains unfavourable, given the significant shortfalls in essential inputs and the continuing deterioration of agricultural machinery."

It was recently reported that the government had decided to introduce changes in pricing and wage structures. "The UN system in the DPRK is currently collecting information on the scope of the changes and analyzing their potential implications".