LEAVING BEHIND the high-rise buildings of Pyongyang, my North Korean counterpart and I plunge into the countryside in a white UN World Food Programme Land Cruiser at the start of a two-week monitoring mission up the east coast of North Korea.
Terraced rice fields stretch away on both sides of the highway, which is nearly empty of all other vehicles. Most fields have remained unploughed since the last harvest because of shortages of fuel and spare parts for tractors.
Hundreds of people are trying to hitch rides out of the capital. Most public transport is now aboard open trucks, even in below-freezing temperatures.
Crossing the mountains to the eastern port of Wonsan is one of North Korea's most scenic trips, marred only by what foreigners call "The Tunnel". All traffic to the east coast hits this bottleneck. Since I arrived in April last year, the tunnel has been under repair. Sometimes it is open to traffic for only a few hours a day, one way only.
The 2.5-mile tunnel is a solid traffic jam, a fume-filled horror illuminated at times only by vehicle headlamps. The drive can take up to an hour.
In Anbyon county, we concentrate on a programme supplying maize, lentils and oil to hospitals. We check the books of the county warehouse, where women list all food arrivals in tidy columns in tattered notebooks. The woman today appears nervous: our visits are evidently a source of anxiety to people unused to seeing a foreigner.
Next we visit the county hospital. Its wooden storeroom door hardly opens because of the bags piled inside, which we estimate contain 4,000kg of maize, 450kg of lentils and 300kg of edible oil - close enough to what we expected to find.
WE START early from Wonsan. The lower part of the valley is covered with terraced rice paddies. Rice is one of the few crops that can be planted repeatedly in the same field, but deep ploughing is essential after harvesting to expose roots of weeds, eggs and larvae of insects to the bitter frost.
This year, however, not even one in ten fields is ploughed. The country faces another low rice harvest even before the spring seeding starts. "We can write off 12 per cent of our yield," says a North Korean official.
Collective farms, once proud of bumper harvests produced with some of the world's highest inputs of fertiliser, pesticides and machine power, now grow barely enough to feed farmers' families, let alone the rest of the population.
A visit to a hospital proves shocking. In one room there are eight children with thin brownish hair scarcely covering the scaly skin on their heads. Their bodies appear to be those of children half their age, yet their faces look old and wizened. A nurse points to three of the younger ones and says: "They can't sit up themselves, they're too weak. If you gave them a little push, they would tip over and not come up again without help."
WE VISIT two hospitals near Hamhung and again find the food in their stores reflects what WFP dispatched to them.
Across the road from the second hospital is a little pond with about two dozen children of all ages skating on the ice. Their "skates" are home-made with a rough rail fixed to a board that the children squat on, pushing themselves along with sticks. They whiz over the ice at amazing speeds.
On this one trip we see thousands of children skating on ponds, streams, rice paddies and irrigation channels. What we don't see are the many children who are at home, too weak to skate. We know most people do not have enough food or the right type of food. We do see terrible scenes in hospitals, nurseries and kindergartens, but we still also see a lot of North Korean children playing.
IN THE county hospital we see four weak, malnourished women huddling in a cold room under thin blankets. A random survey last year by the government, WFP, Unicef and the EU found 62 per cent of all children are stunted, indicating they have been malnourished for years.
Since monitoring is not possible at the weekend, we cover as much distance as possible.
AT SACBYOL town I argue with officials to visit more than one hospital and we are allowed to see two. In two unheated rooms, fully dressed patients shiver under thin blankets. The temperature is 5C (41F).
We drive for four hours, more than 60 miles, along the frozen Tumen river, the border with China.
At about the same time as our border drive, a British journalist reported from the Chinese side of the Tumen that one of the few signs of life over in North Korea was ox-carts trawling the streets, picking up the dead from famine and disease.
The journalist also states that food aid is diverted to the army and ruling party members. But he offers no convincing proof and later admits this too was based on unverified accounts from refugees. In my 11 months in North Korea, I have never seen WFP aid being diverted.
We see only two armed border police on our drive along the border, no sealed-off areas, no fences, no watch towers. We see normal Korean country life. We cannot rule out anything, but we can only describe what we see.
IN WINTER in the hospitals, one of the first things you notice is the cold. Some people say coal is still produced in North Korea in sufficient quantities, but the problem is a lack of transport. North Korea does not have hard currency to buy oil, so it cannot produce enough fertiliser. As a result, more and more of its scarce hard currency is used for commercial imports, and there is less for fuel and spare parts.
WE CHECK on food deliveries to three hospitals. All was delivered according to plan, but there is not enough to give out.
Organised food distribution has a long history in North Korea, but a once-elaborate system now distributes uniformly meagre rations: by April most counties do not expect to have anything left. Most people gather edible grasses, roots and mushrooms until the maize harvest in September. This was always a hard time for North Koreans, but old people say the extreme hunger of the past three years is unparalleled.
EN ROUTE to Riwon we hear disturbing news on the BBC. The same Peking- based British print journalist watching from China and interviewing refugees from North Korea describes it as a country of "medieval barbarism" with cannibalism and millions of people killed in recent years. The situation is bizarre. As we drive through North Korea we see food scarcity and widespread hunger, but do not see the barbarism, dying masses or human flesh on the menu reported outside. Foreign aid workers cover more than 60,000 miles across the country annually and none can confirm such reports.
What we do see is bad enough. In an orphanage in Wonsan last summer I saw a girl who must have been about six years old but looked three. While other children sang and performed for the foreign visitors, she tried to move her lips and hands in time with the music. But she was too weak to keep up.
Thomas Hoerz, 40, is an emergency officer with the World Food Programme in North Korea. A native of Stuttgart, Germany, he has worked for WFP in North Korea for 11 months.Reuse content