NORTH Korea's rising tensions with South Korea and the United States, along with soaring international grain prices and flood damage from last year, will probably take a heavy toll among its famine-threatened people, relief experts have said.
The warnings followed a report on Thursday that North Korea's government had suspended distribution of food rations for six months in the capital Pyongyang.
The move, in a city that is home to the country's most affluent and loyal citizens, appears to be a bid to save food as North Korea braces itself for a prolonged standoff with Washington and Seoul over its nuclear programme.
Although the state rationing system has not functioned well in recent years, the suspension of distributions will force residents of Pyongyang to buy food with their own money and use up any private stockpiles.
The UN World Food Programme, which has an office in Pyongyang and has been warning of worsening food shortages, could not immediately confirm the report, which was released by Good Friends, a relief group in Seoul that collects data from informants in the North.
"Certainly we are as concerned as others are over the present situation in North Korea," said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the UN agency. He said the situation was "probably worse" than last year.
A combination of factors makes this year especially harsh for North Koreans, whose isolationist government requested foreign aid in the 1990s only after famine had killed more than one million of its estimated 23 million population.
During that period, the rationing network, based on North Korea's collective farm system, crumbled. Unofficial markets and small farms emerged as a crucial means of supplying food.
But as the food crisis eased a couple of years ago, North Korea began reinstating the rationing system as its most powerful tool of control over the population. It also began cracking down on the mushrooming unofficial markets, which it saw as a dangerous breeding ground for capitalism and outside influence.
Then, last year, floods reduced the autumn harvest by around 12%, according to international relief officials. Higher global food prices have undercut North Korea's ability to import grain. China, the biggest exporter to North Korea, has been desperate to keep its own runaway food prices under control and has imposed high tariffs on any food exports. And South Korea, amid rising political tensions with the North, has not shipped its annual food assistance there this year.
Last week, North Korea, angered by South Korea's announcement of some limits on its aid, called its new president, Lee Myung-bak, an "impostor" and a "US sycophant", and declared that the North "will be able to live as well as it wishes without any help from the South."
With that pronouncement, North Korea effectively denied itself a chance to request South Korean food aid this year. In recent years, it has sought aid before the spring months, when shortages are at their worst.
The growing fear of hard times has already helped to drive up grain prices in North Korea by 70% over the last year, according to experts in Seoul and defectors from the North.
Since Tuesday, North Korea's state-run media has heaped scorn on the South's President Lee, seemingly preparing its people for a new round of brinkmanship.
In response, Lee said: "We propose that the two sides engage in sincere dialogue, and in order to do so, we believe the North has to move away from its previous ways and actions."