As six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme resume in Beijing, the BBC’s Penny Spiller considers whether food shortages in the secretive communist state may have an impact on progress.
Negotiators for the US, North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia are meeting in Beijing amid signs of a willingness to compromise.
While the last round of talks in December ended in deadlock, bilateral meetings since then have brought unusually positive responses from both North Korea and the US.
Such upbeat noises were unexpected, coming four months after North Korea shocked the world by testing a nuclear bomb.
The test brought international condemnation and UN sanctions, as well as a significant drop in crucial food aid.
South Korea suspended a shipment of 500,000 tonnes of food supplies, while China’s food exports last year were sharply down.
The World Food Programme has struggled to raise even 20% of the funds it requires to feed 1.9 million people it has identified as in immediate need of help.
Aid agencies warned at the time of a humanitarian disaster within months, as the North cannot produce enough food itself to supply its population. It also lost an estimated 100,000 tonnes-worth of crops because of floods in July.
‘Queues for rations’
Kathi Zellweger, of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Pyongyang, said the present food situation in the country was unclear.
No figures are yet available for last year’s harvest, and it was difficult to assess what impact the lack of food aid was having on supplies, she said.
However, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated the country was short of one million tonnes of food – a fifth of the annual requirement to feed its 23 million people.
South Korea-based Father Jerry Hammond said there were signs of shortages – not only in food but also in fuel – when he visited the North with the Catholic charity Caritas in December.
He described seeing long queues for rations, and ordinary people selling goods in the street for money to buy the basics.
“You do expect to see more shortages during the winter time,” the US-born priest, who has visited North Korea dozens of times in the past decade, said.
“But I did see a noticeable difference this time.”
High malnutrition rates
Paul Risley, of the World Food Programme, said people in North Korea may still be cushioned by the November harvest and the pinch will be felt in the coming months.
“We have great concerns,” he said, pointing out that North Korea was now in its second year of food shortages.
He says “stabilising food security” in the country will be very relevant to the talks in Beijing.
“It is certainly the hope of all who are observing the situation in [North Korea] that imports of food can be resumed and returned to prior levels,” he said.
“Malnutrition rates are still the highest in Asia, and we certainly don’t want to see those rates rise any further.”
Father Hammond thinks Pyongyang may be persuaded to consider compromises in Beijing, but is unlikely to do so as a result of any pressure from the people of North Korea.
“People are very cut off from the outside world, and there is constant propaganda about national survival. Even if they go hungry, it will be considered patriotic,” he said.
There have been signs of possible compromise from both sides in the run up to the talks.
Washington has reportedly hinted at flexibility over its offer of aid and security guarantees, as well as showing a willingness to sit down and discuss North Korea’s demands to lift financial sanctions.
Meanwhile, North Korea reportedly recently told visiting US officials it would take the first steps to disband its nuclear programme in return for 500,000 tonnes of fuel oil and other benefits.
And South Korea is keen to resume its shipments of rice and fertiliser aid – if Pyongyang agrees to freeze its nuclear programme, the Choson Ilbo newspaper has reported.
As the nuclear talks resume, all sides will be looking to translate such pressures into progress.