"It is not a famine, and we are intent on ensuring that it doesn't turn into one," added Mr. Banbury, who has just ended a week's visit to the reclusive country.
Banbury blamed an estimated 20 percent shortfall in food supplies on several factors, including floods last year, less aid from China (down sharply in the past two years due to new restrictions on grain exports generally), and South Korea's suspension of food and fertilizer shipments this year. South Korea's President Lee Myung Bak, who took office in February, has vowed to take a harder line against his country's northern neighbor.
A recent WFP assessment found that more than half the country's households are eating only two meals a day and that cereal prices have risen by as much as 300 percent over the past year.
Citizens eligible for food rations have seen their allocation cut from 500 grams a day to 150 grams, Banbury reported. Few North Koreans eat meat except on major national holidays when the government distributes it, he added.
The WFP report classifies most of the country as suffering "an acute food and livelihood crisis," the UN agency's representative in Pyongyang, Jean-Pierre de Margerie, said. Remote and especially poor districts in the northeast are facing a "humanitarian emergency," he added.
More than one million North Koreans are estimated to have died of hunger in the mid-1990s after Pyongyang's traditional benefactor, the Soviet Union, collapsed. At that time, the North Korean government was extremely reluctant to allow international aid agencies to help alleviate the suffering.
A new agreement with the government now gives the WFP "the best access and working conditions" it has ever enjoyed, Banbury said, allowing the agency to deploy more foreign staff than ever before. For the first time, the WFP is using Korean speakers and more monitors outside the capital.
Pyongyang is also accepting aid from governments it considers hostile, such as the United States, which has delivered 110,000 tons of food in the past two months. But North Korea has so far turned down assistance from the new South Korean government.
There are few signs, though, that the government's avowed policy of "self-reliance" is working in agriculture. Banbury said he was struck by the primitive, low-yield strain of corn grown in North Korea, and by the general trend of economic decline. "When you see what used to be and what is, everything is moving in the wrong direction," he said at the end of his seventh visit to the country.
The WFP's planned North Korea program will help more beneficiaries than any other program in the world, reaching 6.3 million people and costing $503 million over the next 15 months, Banbury said. Sixty million dollars is needed "right now" to fund the program until the end of this year, he added.