As fears of famine spread, desperate North Koreans are risking their lives to escape over the border to China. This is hardly the isolated communist regime's first battle with deadly food shortages — or even its worst. Why can't North Korea find enough to eat under Kim Jong Il? Here, a brief guide:
Is North Korea's food shortage really that severe?
The situation is bad, and getting worse. The U.N.'s World Food Program says as many as 6 million of the country's 24 million citizens are at risk of malnutrition. Government rations have been slashed to give people just 10 percent of what they need for a healthy diet. The European Commission last week offered Pyongyang $14 million in emergency provisions, saying that 500,000 people, many of them already malnourished children, could die of starvation. But the U.N. says it would take $210 million in aid to prevent dire shortages.
How are the poor coping?
Increasingly, desperate families are risking their lives to cross the border into China. "You see more people out in the fields and on the hillsides digging roots, cutting grass or herbs," says Katharina Zellweger, head of the Swiss Agency for Development & Cooperation in Pyongyang. Others are even more desperate. "Some people are having to eat manure when they cannot get rice or corn," said one refugee, 68-year-old Kim Yeong, as quoted by Britain's Telegraph.
Why can't the country's "dear leader," Kim Jong Il, feed his people?
There are many contributing factors. The country's "Soviet-style planned economy" is a disaster. Many countries, including the U.S., have stopped sending food aid in the last few years. Even more nations cut off shipments after the rogue communist state nearly ignited a war with South Korea last year by sinking a South Korean ship and shelling one of the south's islands. Kim Jong Il also spends more money than his government can afford on his missile and nuclear programs. Some observers believe he's hoarding supplies in case he faces further sanctions. And to make matters worse, North Korea has been through a series of harsh winters and floods, and harvested an unusually weak potato crop this spring.
How unusual is this?
Sadly, not very. In fact, this is not even the worst famine North Koreans have had to endure since the fall of the Soviet Union, once the country's principal patron. The country was slammed by another famine in 1995, the year after Kim Jong Il inherited power from his father. That time, 3.5 million people reportedly starved to death.