North Korea, though moving out of its international isolation, faces renewed worries over long-time food security, according to a church-based observer with extensive experience in the communist country.

Due to a poor harvest in late 2000, North Korea was facing a 1.8 million ton food shortfall—its worst since 1997, said Erich Weingartner, former liaison officer of the United Nations World Food Program in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Weingartner said that while conditions might not yet be as grave as they were in the 1990s, when as many as a million people died, North Korea is now facing an aid crisis comparable to that in Bangladesh, where chronic food shortages were seen as an intractable problem.

"To the rest of the world, a humanitarian crisis like this does not seem to have a resolution," Weingartner said after a May 15 forum at New York's Interchurch Center.

On May 16, The Washington Post reported that North Koreans faced a "bleak spring" and were "once again eating leaves and roots to survive."

David Morton, the United Nations coordinator in Pyongyang, told the newspaper that authorities were urging citizens to begin producing "alternative foods" such as ground corn and cabbage stalks, roots, acorns, edible grasses and leaves.

"The food situation is still very critical," said Weingartner, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and a former official of the World Council of Churches. More recently Weingartner has served as an intermediary between the Canadian and North Korean governments as they improve official relations.

Weingartner said the problem facing North Korea was not merely the food shortage, which worsened in the 1990s as a series of droughts and floods led to crop failures. The nation was also plagued ...

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