North Korea remains in the middle of an acute food crisis. And there are signs the country's dependency on outside aid may be growing even stronger.
Every year since 1999, South Korea has supplied its impoverished rival with 300,000 metric tons of fertilizer. But this year, North Korea has asked for an unprecedented 500,000 tons.
Analysts say the request is the latest sign that the North is still unable to produce enough food and that its dependence on donors is increasing at a time when it shows little sign of resolving major differences with the outside world. For a decade, North Korea has needed foreign aid to feed its people, as natural disaster and years of economic mismanagement have eroded crop production.
In a further sign of food shortages, the United Nations World Food Program says North Korea recently cut daily food rations to 250 grams of rice or cereal per person, per day. Brenda Barton, a spokeswoman at WFP headquarters in Rome, says that is insufficient.
"That is half of what people need to survive on a day-to-day basis," she said.
Humanitarian groups say a major difficulty they face is in ensuring that food aid reaches the neediest civilians rather than being diverted to North Korea's armed forces or the ruling elite.
The WFP says it is satisfied that most of its aid reaches those for whom it is intended: children, pregnant women and the elderly.
Christian activist Tim Peters runs a charity in Seoul that delivers food aid to North Koreans. He says that North Korean refugees told him in China late last year the shortages are getting worse.
"The refugees told us that for the most part they have not seen food aid within the last four or five years," he said.
Japan, the United States and other countries say they are willing to provide aid to North Korea once it has verifiably ended its nuclear weapons program.
In the meantime, the World Food Program's Brenda Barton says North Korean civilians will continue to suffer. "The situation day by day for the population is still very tenuous. People often don't know where their next meal is coming from," she said.
[Excerpted from an article by Kurt Achin, Voice of America]