South Korean human rights activists have released a video allegedly showing an active duty North Korean soldier suffering from malnutrition. If genuine, the video raises questions about whether North Korea's chronic food shortages are affecting the Armed Forces, which enjoy higher food privileges than the civilian population.
The video, which was released Thursday, shows a man in a North Korean military uniform, slouched and haggard, riding a train. The man apparently tells an off-camera interviewer he is a 19-year old North Korean soldier, on leave for sickness related to malnutrition.
In the recording, made secretly, with barely audible voices muffled by train sounds, the man reportedly says he has gone so long without food, his digestive organs no longer function properly and he has been sent to his family because the army hospital could not feed him.
The video was produced by the Japan-based human rights group "Rescue North Korea", or RENK, and given to the South Korean activist website, "Daily NK."
South Korean officials are not commenting on whether they believe the video is authentic, but Lee Yeong hwa, a RENK representative, insists it is genuine.
Mr. Lee says a North Korean defector returned to his country from hiding in China to shoot the video. Defectors in China are in danger of being sent back to North Korea, where they face severe punishment and even death. Returning with a recording device like a video camera could subject a defector to even greater danger.
RENK's Mr. Lee says making the video was worth the risk, because it sheds light on the North's humanitarian crisis.
Mr. Lee says this is the first video interview with a North Korean soldier suffering from hunger. He expects the tape to be very influential with world leaders.
North Korea's armed forces enjoy the highest food privileges under a policy Pyongyang calls "Military First." Researchers say any food shortage experienced by the military is likely to be far worse among the civilian population.
Gerald Bourke, with the U.N. World Food Program, has just returned from North Korea. He says it is not difficult to believe the North's food crisis is affecting the armed forces.
"So many North Koreans are very hungry," he said. "It cuts right across the society. We see soldiers on the road and they don't look any better fed than the rest of the population."
The World Food Program (WFP) keeps about 40 representatives in North Korea throughout the year to ensure food donations go to the most needy - mainly pregnant women, children, and elderly people who live in cities and have no way to farm or scavenge.
In recent years, South Korea has donated about 100-thousand tons of food per year to the North through the WFP. Seoul also began sending half a million tons of rice over the border this week.
Mr. Bourke says while such direct transfers are helpful, there is no way to ensure where the food goes. "It is not subject to targeting, and it is not monitored. It may not get to those who need it most."
The WFP says North Korea's food shortage is worsening and - as the market price of staples like rice skyrockets - many North Koreans are supplementing their diet with acorns, grass, and anything edible they can find.