North Korea faces fear of famine as food shortages mount

BEIJING — Food shortages are gripping North Korea amid signs that some of its citizens may already be starving to death, experts and rights activists said Tuesday.

Food rations across much of North Korea have been slashed, and the country's 1.1 million strong military reportedly halted major exercises so that soldiers could help raise crops, according to reports out of South Korea. After a three-year hiatus, the Bush administration is resuming food aid to North Korea, and a U.S. freighter carrying bulk grain is now sailing to make the first delivery from some 500,000 metric tons of food assistance that Washington in May promised the Kim Jong Il regime over the next year.

But experts said the bulk of U.S. food aid will arrive too late to help critical pre-harvest food shortages that intensify by the day and are likely to remain bad until August harvests.

"I would describe the situation as very serious. What we are seeing now are pre-famine indicators," said Marcus Noland, a North Korea specialist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington D.C. "Some hunger-related deaths are probably inevitable, if they haven’t already started."

Dozens of South Korean religious and civic group leaders on Monday demanded that the new government of conservative President Lee Myung-bak relax its hard line on North Korea and deliver emergency food aid — even if North Korea spurns the offer.

About 200,000 to 300,000 people might die of starvation in the next two months if there is no emergency aid from the international community, Good Friends, a Buddhist group in Seoul that works to help hungry North Koreans, said in a statement.

"This is a real acute situation. We are already getting reports that in some counties there are three or four people dying every single day," said Erica Kang, a spokeswoman for Good Friends.

North Korea suffered a severe famine in the late 1990s that took as many as two million victims in a nation of 23 million people.

Even North Korea's controlled press has acknowledged the precarious food situation now, blaming it on factors such as unseasonably cold spring weather. Prices for some grains shot up 25 percent last month, following a doubling of prices over the past year, Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the World Food Program representative in North Korea, said in a telephone interview.

The World Food Program said North Korea's food deficit would double this year. De Margerie said he "hasn’t seen any evidence" of famine yet but noted that his office is not permitted free access around the isolated country.

North Korea faces shortfalls of food for a variety of reasons, including dramatic flooding that ravaged the western coastal plains nine months ago, chronic fertilizer shortages, and steadily falling harvests, experts said.

"The worst of the North Korean food shortage is going to be in the next month, and the (U.S.) food aid is not going to show up in that time," said Stephan M. Haggard, a North Korea specialist at the University of California at San Diego.

"This is really the crunch time," Haggard said, adding that even when the first U.S. shipment of grain arrives in late June it will only serve to feed the nation for a week.

The Bush administration offered renewed food aid to Pyongyang last month amid hopes that a six-month impasse has been overcome in six-nation talks over North Korea's nuclear program.

The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization reported in late March that North Korea was likely to face a record shortfall of 1.66 million tons of grain this year. Kang said the worst hunger is in a coastal plain southwest of Pyongyang that is the nation's breadbasket region, source of 60 percent of the nation's grain. Floods wracked the area last year.

"Because farmers there are hungry, they are not working. They are staying at home, not doing any work," she said.

Following the mass famine in the late 1990s, North Korea received nearly a decade of sustained humanitarian aid from the South, totaling about 400,000 metric tons of grain a year, along with regular shipments of fertilizer.

But relations between the two Koreas have worsened since President Lee, a conservative, came to office in late February, pledging to end what he described as too lenient approach toward the Communist North.

Amid signs of famine in the North in recent weeks, South Korea said it would provide humanitarian aid to the North if Pyongyang would make a request. North Korea has spurned the offer.

Haggard said Pyongyang is unlikely to show any sign of weakness to the South.

"It's their way of saying, 'We don’t care if people die. We’re not going to make concessions,' " Haggard said.