North Koreans in rice belt 'starve to death'

Food shortages have worsened in North Korea, even in the southwestern rice belt where some residents have starved to death, a Seoul-based online newspaper said Monday.

"Because of worsening food shortages this year there were reports of people starving to death even in South and North Hwanghae provinces," a Daily NK reporter told AFP, referring to the country's agricultural heartland.

Six people -- children or the elderly -- died in just one village in Shingye county after the authorities released an emergency supply of only one or two kilograms (2.2-4.4 pounds) of corn to each household, the paper said.

It quoted another source as saying that about 10 people had died of starvation on each collective farm in and around the coastal city of Haeju by April, following shortages in late winter.

Good Friends, a Seoul-based aid group, also said on its website that starvation continued to claim victims throughout South Hwanghae. At Hwanghae Steelworks some workers had died because food rations stopped, it said.

The South's unification ministry, which handles cross-border affairs, said it had no information.

Daily NK said North and South Hwanghae saw rice production fall last year due to flooding, and most of the autumn harvest was diverted to military stores or for citizens of Pyongyang.

In South Hwanghae shortages were aggravated by restrictions on market trading and travel during the 100-day mourning period for leader Kim Jong-Il, who died on December 17, it said.

Near the border with the South soldiers were mobilised for farming because many farm workers left to seek help from relatives in other areas, it said.

The North's official food distribution system, part of its state-directed economy, largely collapsed during the famine years of the mid to-late 1990s.

Severe food shortages have persisted. But donations to UN programmes have dwindled due to international irritation at the North's missile and nuclear programmes.

The United States suspended a plan to deliver 240,000 tonnes of food after the North's latest rocket launch on April 13.

On Monday the North's official Korean Central News Agency expressed concern about drought in western areas, which it said had received little rainfall in the past few weeks.

Water levels in the country's major irrigation reservoirs stood at just over 55 percent of normal because of unusually high temperatures, which were expected to last until early June, it said.

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