SEOUL (Reuters) - A U.S. envoy visits North Korea on Tuesday to assess its pleas for food aid, with some sceptical the shortages are as acute as the impoverished and secretive state claims.
North Korea is always short of food. Production in the past year was again well below what is needed to feed its 24 million people, with harvests hit by bad weather. More than 6 million people are in urgent need of outside assistance, according to a United Nations report issued in March.
International sanctions, a tough conservative leader in the South, and a wary U.S. administration have meant a substantial decline in food aid from traditional donors.
Aid agencies and governments believe the secretive North needs about 5.3 million tonnes to feed its population.
The World Food Programme estimates the North's crop was about 4.5 million tonnes. The South Korean government's assessment of the crop is a more conservative 4.3 million tonnes.
The World Food Programme said in November that the North's staple food output had actually increased by 3 percent from a year earlier.
South Korea believes the crop is slightly worse than last year but not enough to justify the begging tone of Pyongyang's diplomats.
Some officials say the North may well be trying to stockpile food to prepare for a national party next year to mark the 100th anniversary of the state founder's birth.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is not likely to resume food aid to the North after ending a decade of unconditional support by his liberal predecessors when he took office in 2008.
He has shown no sign of dropping his condition for resuming any kind of aid for the North: that Pyongyang first abandon its nuclear weapons programme.
Washington, on the other hand, is being pressed by some to resume help after the U.N. report of acute food shortages. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said after visiting the North last month that withholding food aid was a human rights violation.
The sticking points continue to be whether there will be greater transparency in the way the food is distributed and whether monitors can check it reaches those in need.
U.S. special envoy for human rights, Robert King, is heading a team of officials and experts to make an assessment on food needs.
Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Chris Lewis and Jonathan Thatcher