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 would 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.
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.