Apart from the focus on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, another crisis is unfolding in Asia's secretive Stalinist state: a worsening food shortage that appears to be the worst food crisis since the 1990s.
Erica Kang, director of Seoul-based human rights group Good Friends, says that a "few hundred thousand people are in danger or at risk of famine" in North Korea. Marcus Noland, an expert on the North Korean economy at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, believes that "hunger deaths are almost surely returning."
Anecdotal reports leaking out of the country suggest life for some North Koreans is returning to the dark days of the 1990s famines. Families have been scavenging for wild roots and plants to supplement meager diets. Many children have stopped attending school because of hunger, while their parents are choosing to spend their days searching for food rather than show up for work.
The World Food Program has stepped up its relief effort in recent months. The agency plans to provide food in coming weeks for more than six million North Koreans — about a quarter of the population. In certain parts of the country, particularly the northeast, the situation is "reaching a level of humanitarian emergency," says Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the WFP's country director for North Korea in Pyongyang.