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N. Korean defector says kids are starving

A North Korean diplomat who arrived Friday in Seoul after defecting to South Korea said the food situation in the North was so severe that children were starving to death.

"I visited Pyongyang in December. The children are dying. There is basically no food," Kim Dong-soo, a North Korean official who worked at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Italy, was quoted as saying by the intelligence Agency for National Security Planning."The situation is at its worst. On the way to work in the morning, bodies of children who have starved to death can be seen in front of the train station," Kim told reporters at Seoul's Kimpo Airport where he arrived with his wife and 8-year-old son after a flight from Rome.

The family smiled brightly and all looked healthy as they waved to reporters.

The intelligence agency said Kim sought asylum at the South Korean embassy in Rome.

It said the 38-year-old diplomat majored in English at a North Korean university in Pyongyang and served as an envoy for 10 years.

Kim had left his mother and 13-year-old daughter in the famine-stricken North, the statement said.

The Italian news agency ANSA said on Thursday that the asylum bid had been kept under wraps to allow police to set up special protection measures.

ANSA said the diplomat was believed to have taken some documents with him when he left the U.N. food agency, but that report could not be confirmed.

Secretive Stalinist North Korea has been hit by widespread famine after devastating floods in 1995 and 1996 and a drought in 1997. There have been a series of international appeals for food aid and the United States announced Thursday that it would donate 200,000 metric tons of food to North Korea.

FAO experts estimated last November that up to 1 million metric tons of food aid would be needed this year because of the small harvest and North Korea's limited ability to buy food.

The last major defection from North Korea involved the country's ambassador to Egypt, who fled to the United States last August. The defector, Jang Seung-il, was the first North Korean ambassador and the most senior diplomat to defect.

Hwang Jang-yop, Pyongyang's top advisor who defected to the South, sought asylum in South Korea's embassy in Beijing about one year ago.