North Korea is heading towards its worst food crisis since the 1990s because of flooding, successive crop failures and worldwide inflation for staples such as rice and corn, the UN World Food Program warns.
The agency shied away from predicting another famine like the one that killed up to 2 million people in the 1990s, but said its field staff were observing some of the same warning signs.
People are again foraging for wild plants, grass and seaweed to supplement meagre diets. Hospitals are reporting an increase in chronic diarrhoea and illness often linked to malnutrition.
"We did go into the kitchens of some of these families and believe, me, there was nothing," said Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the World Food Program's director for North Korea, who supervised a study of 250 households.
Under North Korea's communist system, people in the cities rely on a public distribution system for their staples, but rations have been cut to one-third of their original levels. At the same time, their purchasing power has been eroded by inflation.
"We've noticed that market prices for staple foods in Pyongyang — rice, maize, potatoes, eggs — were all going through the roof, sometimes quadrupling what they were before," said Mr de Margerie.The agency is now bringing food in for an estimated 1.2 million North Koreans and hopes to reach up to 6 million, roughly a quarter of the estimated population.