(DTN)--Famished North Korea faces a struggle to feed its people again this year with international grain donations slowing and a drier winter threatening crops, a U.N. monitor told Thursday, Feb. 28.

But wheat shipments from the United States are helping keep open the U.N. aid pipeline that feeds millions in North Korea, even after President George W. Bush branded the country part of an "axis of evil" and said it "tolerated starvation."

"The U.S. continues to be generous," said Beijing-based World Food Program (WFP) representative Gerald Bourke, who has just returned from an inspection trip to the remote northwestern province of Chagang.

Despite imminent arrivals of American wheat and South Korean corn, donors will have only delivered around one fourth of the U.N.'s targeted food appeal for 2002, said Bourke.

By the same time last year, they had secured pledges for more than half the amount for which the WFP appealed.

Insufficient soil moisture after an abnormally dry winter could damage this year's barley, wheat and potato crops, he said.

The WFP aims to make up nearly half the country's shortfall in 2002, or 611,000 tonnes, in order to feed 6.4 million of the country's 23 million people.

A better harvest in 2001 helped boost government rations from 215 grams of food per person per day a year ago to 300 grams--less than half the World Health Organization's recommended minimum. But local officials told U.N. monitors rations could drop to 200 grams within weeks as stockpiles dwindle.

"We obviously need more pledges to prevent a pipeline break after the end of June," said Bourke. "Any kind of a break in the pipeline could have very, very serious consequences.

Bourke said the war in Afghanistan had diverted aid away from the communist country, beset with severe food shortages since 1995 as a result of natural disasters and economic mismanagement.

But he rejected suggestions that major donors such as Japan had purposely dragged their feet to avoid being associated with a country Bush has accused of proliferating weapons of mass destruction.

"If the Americans, having said that, are giving, then why should the others baulk at giving?" he asked. He noted the United States had separated humanitarian interests from politics.

But Bush, recently speaking near the Demilitarized Zone bisecting the Korean peninsula, said the burden of proof was on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to prove he cared for his people.

"Korean children should never starve while a massive army is fed," said Bush, adding, "I'm troubled by a regime that tolerates starvation."

Bourke said the North Korean government has never been able to care for the people in a country where only 16% of the land is arable, irrigation systems are fraught with problems and farmers waiting for fertilizer imports are left in the lurch.

"All these kinds of things conspire to prevent the country from being able to feed itself," he said. "We don't have an exit strategy."

Famine and related disease have caused anywhere from 100,000 to several million deaths in North Korea, which spiraled into economic crisis after the Soviet Union's collapse led to the withdrawal of aid and subsidized trade.

Bourke was optimistic the United Nations could still meet its targets because the year was young and donors had come through in the past.

Defectors and critics say the people never see some of that aid and that North Korean authorities have deceived international aid organizations during inspections.

Bourke said Pyongyang had slowly responded to pushes by aid groups for greater transparency. It was due to allow the WFP to conduct a nutritional survey with the European Union and UNICEF this fall--the first such study since 1998.

"There is progress, even if it's slow."

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