SAN FRANCISCO - A humanitarian group trying to ease hunger in North Korea has loaded 10,000 apple trees on a plane headed for Pyongyang.
Mercy Corps International, a nonprofit relief agency, put together ''Operation Appleseed'' with rootstock from Oregon-based Treco Inc., to create a 480-acre farm in South Pyongan province. The Evergreen International Airlines B747, which was donated for the trip, was expected to arrive Thursday.
Mercy officials said they expect the five varieties of apples to yield 40 pounds of apples per tree for a total first harvest of 200 tons. At maturity, each tree should yield about 220 pounds of apples, for a total yield of 1,100 tons. The U.S. value of the crop would be about $550,000.
Relief agencies say the past winter has been very difficult in the north, and the nation is facing yet another year of drought and hunger.
The spring is traditionally a time of hardship, as fall harvests run out and spring crops are just being planted.
''I am worried that if North Korea does not get aid it will be very easy for it to slip back into a major crisis,'' Kathi Zellweger, director of international cooperation at Caritas Hong Kong, said last week. ''Then it's the vulnerable groups - children, pregnant women and the elderly - who will suffer first.''
The severe drought has caused shortages of drinking water, crippled the country's hydroelectric power and threatens to parch spring crops.
At least 220,000 North Koreans have died of famine since floods devastated the country's agricultural sector five years ago. The country remains heavily dependent on outside aid to feed its 22 million people.