By Silvia Aloisi
ROME (Reuters) - More than 6 million people in North Korea urgently need food aid because of substantial falls in domestic production, food imports and international aid, the United Nations said on Friday.
In a report providing a rare glimpse into the reclusive communist state, where a famine in the 1990s killed an estimated 1 million people, three U.N. agencies said North Korea's public distribution system would run out of food at the beginning of the lean season that runs between May and July.
The agencies, which visited North Korea for a month between February and March, said the country had suffered a series of shocks in recent months, leaving it "highly vulnerable to a food crisis" and threatening a quarter of its 24 million people.
The report will add pressure for the full resumption of international food aid to North Korea amid a standoff with the West over Pyongyang's nuclear programs and accusations that North Korea was behind two attacks on South Korea last year.
Notably, Pyongyang has asked the United States to resume food aid which was suspended in 2008 over a monitoring row.
The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, World Food Program and Unique recommended providing 434,000 metric tons of food aid for 6.1 million people. Children, and the elderly were among the most vulnerable in a country suffering from chronic food shortages and malnutrition, they said.
The agencies, which visited nine of North Korea's 11 provinces and municipalities, said the state-run distribution system would reduce food rations -- mostly rice and maize -- from the current 400 grams per person as its stocks dwindled.
"This is extremely worrisome as 16 million people depend on this system for the bulk of their staple food requirements," said the report.
While it called the nutrition situation in the country relatively stable for now, it said 25 percent of women aged 15 to 49 were undernourished, and a high number of children -- 45 percent in one province -- were stunted and under-weight.
"The likelihood of a deterioration of acute malnutrition (wasting) must be considered high," it said.
The northern and eastern provinces of Ryanggang, Chagang, North Hamgyong, South Hamgyong and Kangwon were the hardest hit.
Of the 122 households the U.N. envoys interviewed, only very few had an "acceptable food consumption," nearly two-thirds reported reducing the size of portions and about half reported skipping one or more meals in the week prior to the interview.
The report put North Korea's cereal import requirement at 1,086,000 metric tons for the 2010/11 marketing year, up from 867,000 metric tons anticipated in a November 2010 assessment.
By contrast, it said the government now planned to import only 200,000 metric tons of cereals -- a reduction of 125,000 from what Pyongang had announced in October 2010 -- due to reduced export earnings and higher food and fuel prices.
Aid groups have warned for months that North Korea faces renewed food shortages due to bad weather that damaged harvests.
However, experts and officials disagree over whether the impoverished state is actually experiencing worsening shortages.
In a blog he wrote after visiting a Pyongyang market earlier this month, the British ambassador to South Korea, Martin Uden, said he had found "a fair bit less in variety and quantity" compared to when he toured the same food stalls in 2008.
Officials in South Korea, which has also suspended bilateral aid to Pyongyang, say pleas for food by the diplomatically isolated North are suspicious. They say Pyongyang wants to stock up on food ahead of massive celebrations next year, the centenary of state founder Kim Il-sung's birth.
They also accuse North Korea of trying to hoard food ahead of a third nuclear test, which would likely provoke a further tightening of international sanctions.
Critics of food aid say North Korea in the past siphoned off the food to feed its million-strong army rather than the needy.
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)