International humanitarian groups say North Korea is facing another critical food shortage but some observers of the secretive state are not convinced that the situation is as desperate as it seems.
Famine is a perennial concern in North Korea
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) is again urging international donors to provide food aid to North Korea. It says that in 2011 the nation faces a food deficit of 867,000 metric tons.
"This is as a result of flooding last year, a poorer than usual vegetable harvest at the end of 2010 and a very severe winter that the country has been going through," says Marcus Prior, Asia Spokesperson for the WFP, based in Bangkok.
The WFP's concerns have been echoed by the Pyongyang government itself. In a rare move, North Korea's foreign embassies recently asked their host nations to donate food to help offset this food shortage.
However, some observers say Pyongyang's call for aid is disingenuous. Ha Tae-kyung is president of Open Radio for North Korea, a broadcaster based in Seoul that is staffed by North Korean refugees and also has paid sources operating secretly in the North.
Some argue against giving food aid to Pyongyang because it prolongs the dictatorship
According to Ha Tae-kyung's contacts, there is no food shortage in North Korea. He suspects that the leadership has ulterior motives.
"North Korea is planning to conduct another nuclear test this year. They expect to be hit with more international sanctions as a result and so they want to stockpile food now," he explains.
He points out that if the international community doesn't give North Korea food aid, then Pyongyang will be forced to postpone the testing of another nuclear device.
Aid diverted to elites
Moreover, he adds, in the past, humanitarian assistance has rarely made it to those in need anyhow.
Even during the great famine of the 1990s, in which millions are thought to have died, food aid was diverted to feed the North's military or elite.
That's what some of those who witnessed the food distribution firsthand also confirm.
Critics say N Korea is determined to go ahead with its nuclear program
Kim Sung-jin was a transport official in the North Korean city of Chongjin before his defection to South Korea in 2007.
He says that when those North Koreans who did get access to the food discovered it was from abroad, officials put their own spin on it for propaganda purposes.
"North Korean official media said the reason why the US and South Korea had donated rice was because they were afraid of the North’s nuclear power and the results of Kim Jong-il's policies," he says.
The monitoring of food aid remains a concern, says Prior: "Our presence and operations in the country is very much based on the principle of 'no access, no food.' So access to our operations is extremely important to us."
But even with those safeguards in place, Kim Sung-jin says foreign donors should resist sending more aid to the North. "Food aid will ultimately strengthen Kim Jong-il's dictatorship and prolong its power," he argues.
For now, with the exception of China, few nations seem ready to help North Korea.
Author: Jason Strother (Seoul)
Editor: Anne Thomas