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North Korea's failed rocket launch in April scuttled talks with the U.S. over a food aid program. The North has, in the past, suffered dire food shortages. According to the United Nations, the food situation there is better now than it has been for many years. But North Koreans, speaking freely in China, paint a dramatically different and alarming picture.

NPR's Louisa Lim has that story.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: As North Korea mourned its leader, Kim Jong-il, last December, one surprising thing was on people's minds: fish. State-run television showed people lining up in shops; the Dear Leader's last wish, apparently, was to provide fish to his people.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: This fish makes me sorely miss him, one woman said tearfully.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Now if the media is to be believed, the gleaming new supermarkets have sprung up, stocked with the latest goods. State-run television showed the new leader, 20-something Kim Jong-un, touring a fancy new meat shop, accompanied by top army commanders. His words are solemnly quoted.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Kim Jong-un said it is the intention of the party is to provide a happier life to our people, best in the world.

LIM: And the food situation is better than usual, according to the United Nations. It estimates that an improved harvest means North Korea is lacking 207,000 tons of food. That sounds a lot but it's the lowest figure in many years.

But all five North Koreans I met in China say that's not the whole story. The markets are full of food but people can't afford to buy it. State rations aren't being distributed. Even soldiers go hungry. And some families are driven to desperate action, as one man who gives his name as Mr. Kim describes.

MR. KIM: (Through Translator) I saw one family, a couple with two kids, who committed suicide. They made rice porridge and added rat poison. White rice is very precious, so the kids ate a lot and the parents ate, too. After 30 minutes they were dead. There had been nothing to sell in their house and life was too hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRYING INFANT)

LIM: That persistent hunger is written on the bodies of North Korea's children. According to U.N. estimates, almost half the children in one province, Ryanggang, are stunted from malnutrition. Even in the showcase capital, one in five kids is stunted.

Mrs. Kim, who is not related to Mr. Kim, lives in Pyongyang's outskirts. Even there, she's seen deaths from starvation this year.

MRS. KIM: (Through Translator) I saw five people who died of starvation. There was one husband who worked in the mines, but his job provided no rations. His two children died. Apart from that family, I know of one woman and two men who starved to death.

LIM: It's worth remembering all the people I spoke to are part of the urban elite; they had the money and connections to get visas to enter China legally. Yet they, too, are smaller than usual, stunted from years of hunger.

The lives they describe are of almost unimaginable slog. Mrs. Kim wakes up at 4:30 every morning to feed her animals. Although she's a party member, she runs an illegal small-scale distillery. It's risky, she admits, but she needs two businesses to survive.

KIM: (Through Translator) If you don't do that, you starve. You need to have two businesses in order to simply survive.

LIM: Price instability has added new uncertainty for traders and those who shop in the markets. Most families have bare cupboards - no or negligible stock levels is what the U.N. found on its home visits. And most have nothing to fall back on; their life savings were wiped out, turned to water, as they say, in a botched currency redenomination in 2009.

Another problem is corruption. Government officials need things, one man tells me, so they take them from the people.

I asked Mrs. Ju, who sells animals at the market, what she will miss most when she leaves China.

MRS. JU: (Through Translator) To live without worrying about what to eat; every day, you wake up in the morning and you wonder what you are going to eat and you worry.

LIM: For these North Koreans, coming to China has opened their eyes. Mrs. Kim explains how it's changed her.

KIM: (Through Translator) Before I left, I thought North Korea was the best country in the world. After I came out, I was ashamed because it's so poor.

LIM: So little is known about North Korea that interpreting what's happening is tricky. Some observers argue inflation could be progress; a sign of economic liberalization, with prices dictated by the market rather than the state. And the very fact North Koreans are going abroad legally shows the iron grip of the state is loosening slightly.

But the bad news is life is actually harder for most ordinary folks - so hard that, for one family, death seemed an easier option.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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