Kaoru Yosano, acting chief spokesman for the Japanese government, said they were investigating the incident, which comes weeks after a renewed appeal by international agencies to make up the 800,000 tonnes of grain they estimate Pyongyang needs to feed its people until the end of this year's harvest.
Japanese intelligence sources speculated that the shipment may have originated in China and been transhipped through the North Korean port of Chongjin by a middleman. Even so, the disclosure that the supposedly starving country has food to sell will spur those who favour a hard-line approach to North Korea's secretive government. Since it was hit by floods in1995 there have been suspicions, especially in South Korea, that the food shortage was being exaggerated, and that aid intended for civilians was being diverted for sale or to the country's 1 million troops.
Charity workers, UN officials, and US politicians returning from the North have said many children and old people are close to starvation. "Some of the kids we saw were in a state that I felt if aid doesn't go in, they will not survive," Kathy Zellweger, of the charity Caritas, said on her return to Peking this week. "We are moving to a very, very serious situation if we don't help them now." She said 800,000 children are malnourished, 10 per cent of them seriously, and showed recent photographs of victims with distended stomachs and stick-like limbs.
But accounts suggest it is a selective famine, with parts of the country, including those by the coast, the Chinese border and the the gleaming model capital, Pyongyang, relatively unscathed. On Tuesday the US promised $27m (pounds 16.8m) of food aid in addition to $25m contributed earlier in the year. But on Wednesday the Senate voted to bar more economic aid if the North continued to violate the armistice which ended the Korean War in 1953.
A few hours earlier, North and South Korean troops exchanged fire across the demilitarised zone separating the two countries, an incident which was under investigation yesterday by a UN military team. Each side blamed the other for starting the 23-minute gun fight. The North has agreed to meet for peace talks with China, South Korea and the US next month and intelligence sources believe the incident may have been calculated to give Pyongyang additional leverage by demonstrating its military potential before the meeting.