BEIJING (AFP) - Hunger in North Korea is at its worst since the 1990s, the United Nations said Wednesday, prompting the resumption of emergency UN food shipments after a two-year hiatus. Devastating floods last year wrought havoc on the impoverished country, forcing millions to resort to eating grasses and roots to stay alive, according to the UN's World Food Programme. "I won't say that we are seeing an impending famine, (but) hunger levels are at their worst since the late 1990s," said Jean-Pierre de Margerie, WFP country director for North Korea. "Between five and six million Koreans are in need of food assistance right now," he told reporters in Beijing. In a just completed survey, the WFP found that up to half the country was having to forage for foods and resorting to eating edible grasses and roots, he said. Food prices at tightly-controlled markets had in some instances quadrupled over the last three months, while the state-run government food distribution system had cut daily rations by nearly 70 percent, he said. The WFP began shipping emergency food to North Korea in June, and it will make an international appeal next month for up to $500m in aid to begin flowing in September, de Margerie said. The nation of about 23 million will face critical food shortages until the autumn harvest is completely in at the end of October, and will need international emergency assistance until at least October 2009, he said. The worst flooding on record, which swept over parts of the Stalinist nation and destroyed much of last year's crop, prompted Pyongyang to seek the resumption of WFP emergency food deliveries that stopped in 2006, de Margerie said. But Pyongyang cut off deliveries amid dissatisfaction over the activities of UN and other aid organisations that it considered "intrusive," despite a widespread lack of food at the time, WFP officials said. "We are concerned that the gains made from 2000 to 2006 are reversing," de Margerie said. "Nothing leads us to believe things are getting better... the situation is getting worse, the malnutrition rate is moving up." Arrival of emergency aid will mean that the WFP could be feeding up to 6.4 million North Koreans by the end of September, compared with about 1.2 million currently, de Margerie said. Much of the aid will be provided by the United States, but other major donors such as South Korea, Russia, Italy, Switzerland and Canada, have also pledged to support the new appeal. De Margerie said North Korea has offered "unprecedented" access to hunger-stricken areas and agreed to allow the WFP and international aid organisations better conditions to monitor food distribution. The more transparent and open working conditions for international aid workers were promised when the United States agreed to give North Korea the new food aid package in May, he added. In Seoul, a spokesman for the unification ministry, which handles relations with the North, said South Korea would consider offering aid if the WFP made a formal request. "If a formal report is provided by the agency, the government will convene a meeting of related ministries and make a decision that reflects overall public sentiment," said the spokesman, Kim Ho-nyoun, according to Yonhap news agency.