North Korea's chronic food shortage has worsened to the point of affecting even some of the country's elite citizens in the capital, a South Korean aid group said Thursday.

The Communist nation has not given rice rations to medium- and lower-level officials living in Pyongyang this month after cutting the rations by 60 per cent in February, the Good Friends aid agency said in its regular newsletter.

Pyongyang citizens are considered the most well-off in the isolated, impoverished country, where the government controls most means of production and operates a centralized ration system. Only those deemed most loyal to Kim Jong-il's regime are allowed to live in the capital.

The food situation is more serious in rural areas, with residents in many regions in the country's South Hwanghae province living without food rations since November, the aid group said.

Some collective farm workers in those regions have not come to work, citing the lack of food, and their absence is causing problems with farming preparations in the spring planting season, it said.

Good Friends, a Buddhist-affiliated group that sends food and other aid to the North, declined to specify where it had obtained the information, saying it has to protect its informants. Some of the group's previous reports of what was happening inside North Korea have later been confirmed.

The World Food Program has warned that North Korea could face the worst food shortage in years, after severe floods swept through the country last summer, destroying more than 11 per cent of the country's crops.

N. Korea reliant on food aid

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Wednesday that there have been discussions about food aid to North Korea, but that no decision had yet been reached. Casey also reiterated that any American food assistance was unrelated to the negotiations to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons.

North Korea has relied on foreign assistance to feed its 23 million people since the mid-1990s, when its economy was hit by natural disasters coupled with the loss of the regime's Soviet benefactor. As many as two million people are believed to have died of famine, exacerbated by a centrally controlled agriculture sector saddled with outdated farming methods.

South Korea was a main food donor for the North when the country was under two successive liberal presidents for the past decade.

But conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office last month with a pledge to stop sending unconditional aid to the North.

Lee has said he would continue humanitarian assistance to North Korea, but would seek to get more in return.

Apparently mindful of the leadership change in the South, the North has not yet made its annual request for rice and fertilizer this year.