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2/24/11 North Korea (AHN) – Economic sanctions have started taking a heavy toll on North Korea, with reports coming in from the reclusive Communist nation suggesting that an acute food scarcity is forcing people to live on wild grass.

A consortium of five aid groups–Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision–while appealing for foreign aid to feed the most vulnerable lot in the isolated country, said a situation similar to the 1990s when thousands perished in a famine was waiting to happen.

A joint statement by the group Wednesday said, “The team observed evidence of malnutrition, food shortages and people foraging for wild grasses and herbs.” The aid consortium also said that hunger and malnutrition were prevalent more among population whose needs were served by North Korea’s public distribution system. It said that pregnant and nursing mothers, the old and the infirm and the very young were at grave risk of malnutrition.

Officials of the aid agencies were recently in North Korea where they were informed that 50 to 80 percent of wheat and barley cultivation had been severely damaged because of the unprecedented cold weather. Besides, they were informed, soaring food prices globally had made it difficult for Pyongyang to import sufficient amounts of grain.

Pyongyang’s strained relations with South Korea and the United States have not helped matters either, with the recent flashpoint being the indiscriminate shelling of a South Korean island. North Korea has also been blamed for the sinking of a South Korean warship, which resulted in the death of 43 personnel.

It’s ironic that the aid consortium, which was asked to pack up and leave North Korean shores in 2009 by the same regime, is being asked to return and resume aid. A South Korean newspaper recently reported that Pyongyang’s deputy envoy to the United Nations, Han Sang-Ryol, had urged the US to resume assistance to his impoverished nation. State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley said the US had not taken a decision on the issue, although it was assessing the situation.

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