North Korea asks Japan to lend rice

A North Korean trade official asked Japan yesterday to lend his country rice, giving credence to reports of serious food shortages. Li Song Rok, chairman of North Korea's International Trade Promotion Committee, said bad weather had damaged their crop and "we would be grateful if [the rice] arrives before the rainy season in June and July". Tokyo does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea so an officially sponsored food- aid package would be unusual.

Thailand is reported to have shipped 50,000 tons of rice to North Korea, and will deliver another shipment by the end of this month. In March, the United States sent 55,000 tons of corn on "humanitarian grounds" in the context of continuing negotiations over the North Korean nuclear programme.

North Korea's admission of grain shortages is in sharp contrast to the stage-managed show laid on during the International Festival for Peace at the end of April, when an unprecedented 15,000 foreigners visited the normally closed country. The North Korean government did its best to convince visitors that the country was stable and its population well looked after. Grocery shops were filled with vegetables and frequented by local people pretending to buy.

The day-to-day reality is very different. Urban North Koreans receive their staple foods, such as rice, through their work units and they must use food coupons. The food market is completely controlled and heavily subsidised: the state buys the produce from the country's farms and then sells it to city residents at one-tenth of that price.

The annual shortfall in cereals production is estimated at two million tons.