BEIJING -- The continuing famine in North Korea is comparable in scale to the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s, and massive foreign assistance will be needed for at least three to five more years to turn the situation around, a U.N. aid coordinator said Saturday after arriving from Pyongyang.

David Morton, chief of the U.N. World Food Program in North Korea, said the food disaster has produced a generation of stunted and dramatically underweight children and forced many adults to leave jobs in search of nourishment.His comments echoed the results of a nationwide nutritional survey conducted last year by international aid donors that found that 62 percent of children under age 7 in the Stalinist nation have stunted growth and large numbers face mental development problems.

Food shortages began in 1995 following decades of inefficient agricultural practices, reductions in aid from Russia and China, and a series of droughts and floods.

Morton refused to provide any figures on the number of people who have died during the famine. But a U.S. congressional delegation that visited North Korea last summer said 300,000 to 800,000 people are dying annually from hunger or starvation-related sicknesses in the nation of 23 million. More than 1 million people died in the Ethiopian famine.

Poor health care, unsanitary conditions and dirty water further threaten North Korea's children, Morton said.

"When they are short of food, they tend to go out searching for alternative sources, and this can give them diarrhea, and in their weakened condition, this can very quickly put them over the brink," he said.

Among "alternative food" products widely consumed are grasses and cornstalks.

In the schools and hospitals he has visited, Morton said, 25 percent of teachers, doctors, nurses and other staff have left their positions.

"When you ask why, the explanation will be given usually that, well, they have asked for time off to go and secure food for their families," he said.

The World Food Program has appealed to other nations for 530,000 tons of food aid worth $245 million this year. North Korea lacks the vegetable oil, beans and other kinds of protein that should be combined with cereals in the diet. An appeal for high-protein biscuits had disappointing results, so the agency is producing them from raw ingredients in North Korea, Morton said.

The country also needs fertilizer and fuel for tractors, he added.

Rival South Korea has offered to send fertilizer but Pyongyang has not yet agreed to the plan, Morton said. The North Korean government also saw food aid from Japan suspended after North Korea fired a rocket over Japanese territory last year. In addition, relations with the United States, which in 1998 was the country's largest food donor, have been rocky because of U.S. concerns over the secretive North Korean government's nuclear program and sales of ballistic missile technology.