International aid organizations are hoping the recent diplomatic breakthrough over North Korea's nuclear weapons program will pave the way for increased food donations to the impoverished North. Current shortages may also have increased Pyongyang's willingness to make concessions at the nuclear weapons bargaining table, experts say. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Beijing.
North Korea's food problems were at a peak in the mid 1990s, when aid groups say as many as one million North Koreans may have starved to death. Better harvests and more international aid helped ease the situation.
However, Paul Risley, Asia spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program, says shortages in the North are again becoming severe.
"There is a deficit of about one million tons of food cereals - that means rice, wheat, and corn - that are not available to the population in North Korea, and in fact have been in years past," Risley says.
Experts say the shortages stem from economic mismanagement and Pyongyang's refusal to allow its citizens open access to international food markets. Several experts say that the current food shortages may have pushed North Korea into reaching the deal at the six-party talks in Beijing, whereby North Korea begins to close its nuclear programs in return for significant aid.
Risley says donations to the World Food Program had dropped due to provocative North Korean actions such as last year's tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Several aid groups have reported a spike in North Korea's purchase of rice and other staples from China - something the cash-strapped communist country can ill afford.
Risley says the most dangerous time of year for North Korea is just ahead - starting in late March.
"When you get into April and May of this year that's what agronomists refer to as the lean season," Risley says.
At this time, harvests and donations from the previous year begin to run out, prompting tens of thousands of North Koreans to flee into China in search of food.
Tim Peters, a Seoul-based activist who helps North Korean refugees gain passage to other countries, said earlier this year that the "lean season" would begin even sooner.
"Donor fatigue and donor utter disenchantment has set in to such a degree that by most measures by the end of January North Korea will be facing another extremely severe lack of rations for its own people," Peters says.
After this week's talks in Beijing, the WFP and others are optimistic that food donations will increase so that new food deliveries can be made to those most in need.