SEOUL — In North Korea, often only one or two rooms in nurseries or kindergartens are heated during winter.

In areas where wood and coal are scarce, people use rice husks and maize cones combined with coal dust for fuel, according to the World Food Programme, a U.N. aid agency.

Spotty electricity and low food supplies will leave many North Koreans eking out unpleasant lives through the bitter winter months, international aid groups report.

But a bit more warmth, at least, is on the way: As of Dec. 26 — and despite tension over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program — the Red Cross had sent 1.1 million sets of long underwear to North Korea, courtesy of South Korean companies.

An additional 700,000 pairs will be sent soon, said Kim Song-kun, head of the South-North relations department at the Red Cross in Seoul.

“Here in South Korea, every place is so hot even in wintertime, we even kind of have a movement for people to wear long johns to save energy,” Kim said. But conditions in North Korea “are really terrible,” he said. “Wearing underwear in North Korea could be directly related to their survival.”

The underwear program started in winter 2000, after relations improved after a summit between South Korean president Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the Red Cross official said.

About 31 underwear companies, most of them in Cholla province, made more than 5 million pairs to send to North Korea, Kim said. Planning conflicts between manufacturers and the Federation of Korean Industries — composed of major South Korean companies — prevented the underwear from being sent, he said.

By January 2001, the Red Cross helped solve the problem. Government and KFI money helped send more than 3 million pairs that year, Kim said.

The program slowed again until September talks between Red Cross and North Korean officials at Kumgang mountain, he said. It was revived after North Koreans requested more long underwear.

This year, South Korea’s government picked up about half of the program’s $7.7 million cost, with the other half covered by donations from underwear manufacturers and civic groups, Kim said.

The underwear travels by ship from Incheon to Nampo, a North Korean port, Kim said. Officials are unsure how the underwear is distributed, he said, but he expects to receive a written report on that within a few months.

“We hope that underwear can be sent to some people in need, not to some people with power,” Kim said. “It can help people who are shivering with cold. I just hope some North Korean people look back to this winter and say, ‘Wow, I overcame that terrible cold with that underwear from South Korea.’”

— Choe Song-won contributed to this report.

Four food factories on verge of closure

SEOUL — Erratic power supplies and lack of food ingredients will cause four food factories to shut down soon in North Korea, a U.N. aid agency said last week.

Food contributions are needed to help feed 2.9 million vulnerable North Koreans this winter, according to a Dec. 27 release posted on the World Food Programme’s Web site. This year, the agency said, it experienced an “unprecedented slump” in donations.

“Munchon biscuit factory will be the first one to stop production due to a lack of powdered milk,” the agency reported, adding that biscuit factories in Sinuiju and Chongjin “will follow suit soon for the same reason.”

Lack of food donations caused almost 3 million children, pregnant women and nursing mothers to go without WFP food assistance in November. But even if shipments resume, distribution will not occur before February, the Web site said.

WFP said it hopes to mount a $201 million program in 2003 to feed 6.4 million people but estimates it will need 1.1 million tons of food aid.

Eleven facilities in five locations throughout North Korea make biscuits, corn soya blend, rice milk blend, cereal milk blend and noodles.

— Jeremy Kirk

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