ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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North Korean food shortages are no longer news, but NPR's Louisa Lim reports that this year, Pyongyang has made unusually public pleas for food aid, raising fears, as well as suspicions.
LOUISA LIM: In North Korea, from May until July is called the lean season. This year, they're already using other Orwellian euphemisms, too, like alternative food.
DAVID AUSTIN: They take wild grasses or straw and twigs, and they cut it up real fine and mix it with their ground-up corn, which is a staple of their diet.
LIM: In mid-February, as part of a seven-person team, he was invited by North Korea to spend a week there assessing whether food aid is needed. He believes it is.
AUSTIN: I would say they're dying of hunger-related causes. A child who ingests this alternative food who's 3 years old, her stomach can't absorb that. So we saw a little girl who's 3 and a half. She weighed about 15 or 16 pounds, and she was completely unresponsive during our visit. That child probably won't make it.
LIM: Rising food prices mean North Korea has scaled back plans to buy food on the world market. It had wanted to buy 325,000 tons. So far, it's only bought 40,000, according to Ken Isaacs from Samaritan's Purse.
KEN ISAACS: Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
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LIM: But Tae-keung Ha from Open Radio for North Korea, who has sources inside the country, says there is food in the markets, but people can't afford it. He blames economic mismanagement, hyperinflation, following botched currency reforms in 2009.
TAE: The price of rice has inflated about 100 times compared to one year ago. The main reason is the value of North Korean currency is plummeting down because North Korean government is just printing more and more North Korean currency.
LIM: This year, multiple reports say even the favored military is going hungry, as the public distribution system has largely broken down. This comes at a time when North Korea has requested food aid from overseas, reportedly even from poorer African countries. Ha fears food aid could be stockpiled for the upcoming Strong and Prosperous Nation campaign.
HA: Maybe almost all the food from the rest of the world to North Korea could be used for the military, and they say that 2012 is the first year of Strong and Prosperous Nation. So that's another reason why they need save rice for the next year.
LIM: But Mercy Corps' David Austin says there are humanitarian and political imperatives to act.
AUSTIN: All of the food that comes in when it's donated from the United States arrives in a bag with a U.S. flag on it, and in Korean and in English, it says a free gift of the American people. And the 900,000 people that we were feeding in 2008-2009, every two weeks, they would go to the distribution center, and they would see that flag, and they would see that statement, and then they would get their food.
LIM: Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.
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