A U.S.-based charity that helped conduct a survey in North Korea warned Wednesday that food stocks will run out by mid-June and without urgent aid people will starve.
The U.S. government said it was still considering the aid request made by North Korea after harsh weather hit crops.
Supplying the food is controversial, particularly as Pyongyang has expanded its nuclear weapons programs as its people go hungry. Previous donors, including South Korea, suspect the authoritarian government of Kim Jong Il is trying to stock up its reserves for 2012, when the communist country will mark the centennial of its founder Kim Il Sung.
Ken Isaacs of Samaritan's Purse _ it is one of five charities that conducted the food needs survey in February _ said that even if Washington agrees to supply aid, it would take about three months to reach North Korea.
"According to our field report ... they are going to run out of food in the middle of June. The urgent need is really right now," Isaacs told a seminar on North Korean human rights hosted by the American Enterprise Institute think tank.
Without aid, Isaacs said, "people will suffer and people will die."
The charities conducted the last U.S. food handouts in North Korea in 2008 and 2009 before they were expelled, but they remain confident they can monitor distributions so the aid does not end up in the mouths of the powerful military and communist party elite. They have proposed supplying up to 175,000 tons of aid to children, women and the elderly.
The United Nations says more than 6 million North Koreans, about a quarter of the communist state's population, need urgent aid. It wants to supply 475,000 tons of food.
Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, told the seminar that Washington was still considering the North Korean request for food, which he said would be evaluated on the basis of need, resources availability, and the ability to monitor food distributions.
"We don't take political considerations into account on whether to provide humanitarian assistance or not," he said.
King said it would not be conditional on the approval of U.S. ally South Korea. Tense relations with the North remain a stumbling block to resuming multination nuclear talks that have been stalled for two years.
He did not say when the decision would be made.
Former President Jimmy Carter is leading a delegation of international elder statesmen to North Korea, seeking to revive those talks and discuss the food shortages.