Washington: North Korea is facing a severe food shortage with people reduced to searching for wild grass to eat, US aid groups said after visiting the communist nation.
The five agencies made a joint appeal for international assistance to feed the most vulnerable populations in North Korea, where hundreds of thousands of people died in a famine in the 1990s.
"The team observed evidence of malnutrition, food shortages and people foraging for wild grasses and herbs," said a joint statement by the groups.
"These trends are particularly prevalent among families that depend on the North Korea public food distribution system, and most severely impact children, the elderly, the chronically ill and pregnant and nursing mothers," it said.
The five groups are Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan`s Purse and World Vision, which all have experience working in the politically isolated nation.
A team of seven experts from the groups visited North Korea earlier this month at the request of the government, they said.
Quoting North Korean authorities, the groups said that 50 to 80 percent of key crops such as wheat and barley planted for harvest in the spring had died because of the cold.
"In addition, rising global food prices have reportedly made it difficult for (North Korea) to import sufficient food supplies," they said.
North Korea`s relations with the United States and its allies reached crisis point last year after the communist state shelled a civilian area of South Korea and was blamed for torpedoing a warship from its rival neighbour.
The communist regime -- which prides itself on the philosophy of "juche”, or self-reliance -- in March 2009 booted out the five US aid groups.
But South Korea`s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported this month that Han Sang-Ryol, Pyongyang`s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, asked the United States to resume aid and offered to allow it to monitor delivery.
US officials say that no decision has been made. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said last week that the United States was assessing the situation but had no mechanism in place to deliver aid.
"We have our policies with respect to providing assistance to North Korea, among them that there would have to be clear needs assessment and careful monitoring to ensure that the food -- if any were to be provided -- would get to the neediest recipients," Crowley said.
President Barack Obama`s administration, while pursuing a policy of engagement around the world, has spurned calls for dialogue with the North until it clearly abides by past promises not to pursue nuclear weapons.
The country is in the midst of a leadership transition, with North Korea watchers believing that the regime is trying to prove the mettle of heir apparent Kim Jong-Un, the youngest son of ailing leader Kim Jong-Il.
South Korea used to ship 400,000 tons of rice a year plus 300,000 tons of fertilizer to its neighbour.
The shipments ended in 2008 as relations worsened and South Korea`s conservative President, Lee Myung-Bak, took office with a pledge to link major assistance to the North to nuclear disarmament.
A recent survey of North Korean refugees conducted by US academics Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard revealed that roughly half had no idea about the longstanding international efforts to assist the country with food.
And of those who were aware, a large majority of the North Koreans were convinced -- regardless of the reality -- that the aid went to the military and government officials instead of the general public.
The authors nonetheless supported food aid, believing that such humanitarian assistance should not be politicised.