Christian relief agencies are stepping up relief to North Korea due to a widespread food crisis observers say is worse than Ethiopia's in the 1980s.

While the shortage is not yet a famine, Trish Jordan of Canadian Foodgrains Bank says starvation soon will intensify. "It's as if you have 22 million people in a boat heading toward a huge waterfall, and we're trying to do whatever we can to keep it from going over the edge."

Canadian Foodgrains Bank is a partnership of 13 organizations, ranging from the Mennonite Central Committee Canada to Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. The group has shipped 4,800 tons of rice to North Korea since this summer. Parachurch organizations also are sending rice to North Korea, including the Seattle-based mission agency East Gates Ministries International, which forwarded 400 tons of rice in June. World Vision, which is leading a consortium of ministries in aiding the country, has sent 1,650 tons of rice, as well as $3 million worth of medicine, medical supplies, clothing, and seeds.

The United Nations World Food Program is overseeing the food distribution.

Hailstorms ravaged fields in the isolationist nation in 1994. Severe floods, which killed thousands of Koreans, have decimated rice crops for the past two years. About 700,000 tons of rice have been shipped to the Communist country since last year's floods, mostly in bilateral assistance from China and Japan. The country continues its policy of repressing religious expression. There are three Christian congregations allowed to function in the country of 25 million people.

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