North Korea's food situation has improved in two years, and with aid from outside, the country now gets enough food to prevent starvation, according to the head of the World Food Program.

Catherine Bertini said sharply increased international contributions now cover the shortfall in North Korea's food supply, so the country should have enough to sustain its people.

She cautioned that hitches in distribution or interruptions in supply still leave pockets of hunger, and large areas of the country are still off-limits to foreign aid workers. Many adults still regularly eat a government-issued "alternative food" consisting mainly of leaves and grasses, she said.

But she painted an improving picture of the situation in North Korea, where a famine has decimated the countryside and helped collapse the economy. Some estimates put the famine toll at one in 10 of the nation's 23 million people.

Bertini's U.N. agency has the only large international relief operation in a country determinedly closed to most outsiders, including journalists. The agency has 46 international employees in six offices in North Korea.

Bertini, who is American, visited several of those offices this month, during her third trip to North Korea. She drove to Pyongyang from the Chinese border and flew to the northeast, where the food situation is believed to be most severe. She said things look better than when she last visited, in 1997, an observation supported by the staff there.

"There is an absolute difference in the children," she said in an interview today in Seoul. "Before, we saw children who were almost skeletal. You could see the bones in their head.

"Now, the kids are heavier. You can't see all the facial bones, and their stomach isn't distended. And they're active," she said. Two years ago, she said, the day care facilities and kindergarten classes she visited were sparsely attended, and children lay listlessly on the floor.

"After the food started coming in, the attendance increased dramatically," Bertini said. Her agency gives food to about 8 million people, most of them children.

Food aid for North Korea is controversial. The Communist government's recent threat to test-fire a long-range ballistic missile despite the pleas of other countries has prompted some demands in the United States, Japan and South Korea that economic and humanitarian aid be cut off.

Many analysts say North Korea's missile threat is a bluff to achieve concessions, including increased food aid.

Bertini said North Korea will remain dependent on outside help because it lacks the machinery, fertilizer and infrastructure to improve its agricultural output and has little to sell to earn money to buy food.

"Food aid is going to be necessary for a long time," Bertini said. North Korea is believed to need 4.7 million tons of food annually to feed its people, but it produces about 1 million tons less than that.

To make up the shortfall, North Korea receives about 400,000 tons of food from China, South Korea and private agencies like the Red Cross, and about 600,000 tons through the World Food Program. More than 80 percent of the WFP food is wheat donated by the United States.

Bertini said she saw some evidence to support North Korea's claim that its economy is starting to recover. There were more vehicles on the street and more animals in the countryside, she said, and a few shuttered factories have started up again.

"If everything continues as it is, it will mean the country will be reasonably stabilized from a nutrition basis," Bertini said. "They won't be strong. They won't be healthy. There will be patches of hunger. But the large-scale starvation won't be going on."

CAPTION: Catherine Bertini says North Korea will need food aid "for a long time."