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North Korea's pleas for food aid draw suspicion

North Korea, April 13, 2011

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Louisa Lim

NPR "All Things Considered"
April, 2011

The United Nations is warning that 6 million North Koreans — a quarter of the population — could be at risk of starvation. It's warning of a likely humanitarian crisis, with North Korea's public distribution system set to run out of food in May.

North Korean food shortages are no longer news, but this year Pyongyang has made unusually public pleas for food aid, raising fears as well as suspicions.

In North Korea, from May until July is called the "lean season." This year they're already using other Orwellian euphemisms, too, like "alternative food."

"They take wild grasses or straw and twigs, and they cut it up real fine, and mix it with their ground-up corn, which is a staple of their diet," says David Austin, of the nongovernmental organization Mercy Corps.

In mid-February, as part of a seven-person team, Austin was invited by North Korea to spend a week there assessing whether food aid is needed. He believes it is.