During the Korean War, hungry North Koreans used to forage for Chok, a deep root which could be dried and cut up for food. Nearly half a century later, United Nations aid officials, who have been operating out of Pyongyang, say some North Koreans are once again relying on roots and wild grasses to stave off hunger. Taeli, an edible grass, is gathered by work teams, and Wat, another wild plant, is used for salad, medicine, and soup, said Trevor Page, who last week finished six months heading the UN World Food Programme's (WFP) office in Pyongyang. "They mix the wild foods with whatever rice and maize they do get," he explained.
Earlier this month, the WFP put out a "special alert" that the food situation in North Korea was becoming critical following recent cuts in official grain rations. Mr Page described the scene in parts of the countryside: "We saw groups of 100 or so people foraging in the middle of nowhere. It was an organised work unit, going out on a Sunday ... On top of that, in every town, groups of 20 to 100 people, mainly women, stand around with little things for sale, like cigarettes, matches, ballpoint pens, notebooks, scarves and beancakes." Illegal trading like this is one of the few ways to raise money to buy food sold unofficially by farmers.
Much uncertainty, and some scepticism, remains in the international community about the extent of the food shortages in the world's most secretive country. Aid agencies are not, for instance, provided with details of North Korea's national food stocks, or the army's supplies. But they have been given access to rural areas normally out of bounds to Western visitors.
Mr Page said: "The food shortages are really severe and widespread." Other relief officials echoed his view. "The situation is deteriorating and that is very obvious because the lean period is from now up to the next harvest, which is October," said Kathi Zellweger, of Caritas Hong Kong.
North Korea's shrinking economy was further hit by floods last summer which have left 100,000 people still homeless and 40,000 hectares of farmland unusable. So how is the population of the world's last Stalinist regime reacting to the threat of starvation? "There is a very definite anxiety among people. They are not getting enough of the basics," Mr Page said.
Official food rations have virtually halved since December, and some people are receiving as little as 250g a day. A couple of times, WFP food aid trucks were mistakenly directed to the wrong destinations, and local villagers were aghast when the vehicles turned around to leave without unloading. "They were haranguing and harassing the [North Korean] officials," said Mr Page. But he stressed that he had not heard of any breakdown in public order. "We have not seen any food riots or heard of any. Dissatisfaction with the government? No, you just do not hear that ... They believe in their system and want to preserve it.".
The next few months could be critical; North Korea has no money to import food commercially, and foreign aid has tapered off. "We are trying to prevent a catastrophe occurring," Mr Page said.
According to him, hillside trees have been cut down and bartered with Chinese companies for food. WFP estimates that 150,000 tonnes of food a year is coming in across the Chinese border in exchange for timber, scrap metal, mineral water, shellfish, human hair and rabbit skins. Factories, most of which have stopped working because of fuel shortages, are being stripped for scrap metal which can be bartered, he said.
Reliable information about the true food situation in North Korea is crucial, not only to decisions about humanitarian aid, but also to United States attempts to force Pyongyang to the negotiating table.
President Bill Clinton last month proposed four-party talks between the US, China and the two Koreas to seek a permanent peace on the peninsula. Yesterday, the US congressman Bill Richardson arrived in Pyongyang to see if he could persuade North Korean leaders to support the initiative. While the US awaits a response, its food aid to North Korea is in effect on hold. The debate among analysts is whether looming famine will force North Korea to negotiate, or whether it could perhaps prompt the Stalinist country to attack South Korea in a last desperate showdown. At a meeting earlier this month, the US, South Korea, and Japan held out the carrot of significant economic aid, if Pyongyang agreed to the talks.
The unpredictability of the situation was demonstrated last Thursday when North Korean ships briefly encroached into South Korean waters, and a North Korean Air Force pilot made a daring defection to Seoul. It was the first defection of a pilot since 1983, and a big intelligence coup.
Meanwhile, the South Korean public was amazed as the state of the pilot's underwear and what that suggested about North Korea's economic woes. He did not have proper socks and was wearing jogging trousers under his flight suit to keep warm at high altitudes.Reuse content