PYONGYANG: Ending a long and hostile silence, North Korea admitted for the first time that rampant food shortages are slowly killing off its population. The North Korean Health Ministry told U.N. officials 134 children recently died of malnutrition. Some relief will come from Minnesota-based grainery Cargill, which has signed an agreement to sell an undisclosed amount of wheat to Pyongyang. For thousands of North Koreans the news may come too late. Living conditions have dramatically deteriorated over the past eight months, says Representative Tony Hall, an Ohio Democrat who recently returned from a four-day tour of North Korea. "I was stunned by what I saw...Evidence of slow starvation on a massive scale was plain wherever we made an effort to look," Hall told Congress. The government has reportedly slashed daily rations to 100-150 grams of rice per day, or roughly 500 calories, leaving North Koreans to scavenge desperately for bits of bark, grass and weeds to supplement their meager diets. Meanwhile, keeping a wary eye on Pyongyang's booming military budget, prosperous neighbors South Korea and Japan still refuse to budge on the question of food assistance for North Korea. So long as North Korea keeps its bombs, they say, it can forget about bread.