New appeal for N Korea food aid

Seoul, South Korea - Influential religious groups in South Korea are urging their government to send food aid to North Korea.

South Korea usually provides about 400,000 tonnes of rice to Pyongyang every year.

But despite warnings that its neighbour may be on the brink of famine, it has sent none this year.

North Korea has been dependent on food aid for years. Severe flooding last year added to its problems, devastating swathes of agricultural land

'Save people'

Reports from North Korea say that once again the state food distribution system has broken down.

One South Korean aid group reports that 10 years after a devastating famine killed hundreds of thousands of people, residents in rural areas are surviving by adding tree bark and grass to their diets.

Now heads of some religious and civic groups in South Korea are urging their government to provide assistance.

"We should save people regardless of who they are," the leaders wrote in their joint statement.

South Korea has a new conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, who is taking a more frosty approach to inter-Korean relations.

The North will not ask for assistance, the South seems reluctant to provide it without a formal request.

Instead the United States has stepped in, agreeing to send half a million tonnes of food to the North through the United Nations World Food Programme.

It says it has secured the necessary guarantees to ensure that the aid reaches those who need it most and is not diverted to the military.