A South Korean welfare group with contacts in North Korea says the government there has totally stopped supplying food rations to its citizens.
A Buddhist welfare organization says promised Chinese aid of grain to North Korea has not arrived, and that has compelled Pyongyang to authorize people to buy food in private markets, which now operate around the clock.
The chairman of the Good Friends organization, based in South Korea, Pomnyun Sunim, says this is taking place because the North Korean government can no longer keep its citizens from starving.
The Buddhist monk says the ruling communist party issued a directive May 26th that work units and individuals should fend for themselves. He says this can be understood as either a frank confession by the government of the severity of the situation there or that the government has abandoned efforts to solve the food crisis.
North Korea has long struggled to feed its people. A famine in the mid-1990's is believed to have killed hundreds of thousands of people. The United Nations Children's Fund estimates that one out of every three children in North Korea is stunted by malnutrition.
While the government allowed some free trading of food during and after the famine, in recent years it has cracked down on such commerce.
Groups monitoring the situation in the reclusive North say food shortages were exacerbated by a failed currency reform program last November. Most markets shut down at the time.
A South Korean government economic research organization, the Korea Development Institute, warns the North faces another extensive crop failure because of an unusually cold spring and a shortage of fertilizer.
Seoul cut most food aid to Pyonygang following the sinking of a South Korean patrol vessel in March. An international investigation concluded a North Korean torpedo caused the Cheonan warship to explode, killing 46 sailors.
The incident escalated tensions on the Korean peninsula and prompted the South to cut nearly all assistance to the North, with which it technically remains at war following the 1953 armistice.
Some international entities, including the World Food Program and the European Union, provide some food and humanitarian assistance to North Korea but the aid is far short of what experts consider is required.