Aid agencies warn that wheat, barley and potatoes have failed and people are being forced to forage in the wild
A bitter winter and rising prices have created food shortages and alarming levels of malnutrition in North Korea, five US aid agencies have warned.
Earlier this month diplomatic sources told the Guardian that Pyongyang had ordered all its embassies to appeal to foreign governments for food aid and a World Food Programme team is currently carrying out an assessment in the country.
The US organisations spent a week assessing conditions across three provinces, North Pyongan, South Pyongan and Chagang. Authorities told them a viciously cold winter had killed 50-80% of the wheat and barley planted for spring harvest, as well as potato seedlings. Rising global food prices were reportedly making it harder to import sufficient food.
The organisations – Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan's Purse and World Vision – reported evidence of malnutrition and people foraging for wild grasses and herbs. They recommended emergency food assistance focusing on vulnerable groups such as children and elderly people.
Dr Leonid Petrov, an expert on North Korea at the University of Sydney, said food shortages were a "permanent phenomenon", thanks in part to the country's mountainous terrain and bitter winters, but had become dramatically worse in the past couple of decades.
Although generous aid from South Korea had led to major improvements following the devastating famine of the 1990s, Seoul's recent decision to end its "sunshine policy", a disastrous attempt at currency reform and botched economic experimentation had all taken their toll.
"The food situation is very uneven. In Pyongyang people continue to live, if not luxuriously, then relatively steadily – while on the outskirts and in the provinces there has been a sharp decrease in access to food, fuel and electricity," added Petrov.
He said in many places there appeared to be "not only a shortage of food, but a loss of faith in the cause".
North Korean media have run several stories on "skyrocketing" food prices worldwide, suggesting official concern about the impact of inflation on public morale. Economists Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute have pointed out that food prices are rising far more quickly in the North than elsewhere.