SUNAN, North Korea — It's an unlikely sight: hundreds of ostriches, a bird native to sunny Africa, squatting and squabbling in the morning chill on a sprawling farm in North Korea. Even stranger: In winter, some wear quilted vests.
Built on the heels of a 1990s famine, the ostrich farm was a bold, expensive investment that the state hoped would help feed its people and provide goods to export. Years later, ostrich meat is the specialty at some of Pyongyang's finest restaurants, but appears out of the reach of millions of hungry North Koreans.
The showcase farm is an idiosyncratic approach to one of the biggest issues confronting North Korea: food.
North Korea's food shortage has reached a crisis point this year, aid workers say, largely because of shocks to the agricultural sector, including torrential rains and the coldest winter in 60 years. Six million North Koreans are living "on a knife edge" and will go hungry without immediate food aid, the World Food Program said, calling in April for $224 million in emergency aid.
North Korean officials have made quiet pleas for help, citing rising global food prices, shortfalls in fertilizer and the winter freeze that killed their wheat harvest. In return, they agreed to strict monitoring conditions — a rare concession.
Donations, however, have not been flooding the nation considered a political pariah for its nuclear defiance and alleged human rights abuses. The European Union is pitching in $14.5 million (10 million euros), only enough to feed one-tenth of the hungry until the October harvest. The U.S. has not said whether it will provide aid.
Skeptics suspect officials are stockpiling food for gift baskets to be distributed during next year's celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of late President Kim Il Sung's birth. Others wonder whether the distribution of food can be monitored closely enough to ensure it gets to the hungry, not the military and power brokers in Pyongyang.
As the political debate continues, aid workers say shelves are bare and stomachs empty outside Pyongyang. And the question of how to feed the North Korean people remains unanswered.
In Pyongyang, food appears plentiful, with sidewalk vendors doing brisk business selling roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts, ice cream bars and griddle-fried pancakes. Those with cash can splurge on hamburgers and pizza.
But aid workers say the food shortage is very real in the poor provinces far from the comparatively prosperous capital city.
"It's now very common to see people with little wicker baskets or plastic bags collecting whatever is edible" — even roots, grasses and herbs, said Katharina Zellweger, the longtime Pyongyang-based North Korea country director for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
A whole generation of children is not getting the well-rounded diets needed to develop mentally and physically, she said. UNICEF estimates one-third of North Korean children suffer malnutrition and are showing signs of stunted growth.
"In the residential childcare centers, I did see more severely malnourished children than I've seen in a long time," Zellweger said.
North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, who based his nation's policy on the concept of "juche," or self reliance, had made it his creed to ensure the people would eat "rice and meat soup." But the loss of Soviet aid, followed by natural disasters and a famine that killed up to 1 million people, forced North Korea to stretch out its hand for help in the mid-1990s.
However, his nation has never had it easy when it comes to agriculture.
Rugged mountains blanket much of North Korea, leaving less than a fifth of the land suitable for farming. Winters are long and harsh, weather conditions volatile.
For decades, North Koreans have planted just one crop, such as the Napa cabbage used to make the ubiquitous spicy side dish called "kimchi." They have also pumped pesticides into land that was already acidic, destroying the soil and cutting into the yield, foreign agronomists say.
Across the countryside, huge swaths of forest have been cut down, leaving no protective cover. Every bit of land is tilled and farmed, even the scrabbly, rocky hillsides and the narrow strips of grass along the highway.
With fuel scarce, most farmers rely on oxen. But foot-and-mouth disease has decimated cattle stocks over the past year, according to the WFP.
North Korea, population 24 million with an annual per capita income of $1,800, has the manpower but lacks the economic and natural resources to succeed at farming, said Kim Young-hoon from the Korea Rural Economic Institute in Seoul, South Korea. He said the North Koreans continue to pursue new ways to stimulate the agricultural sector but cannot fund their ambitious projects.
An estimated one-third of North Korea's people live on some 3,000 farming cooperatives. The countryside is dotted with clusters of cottages that are complete little villages, with kindergartens, clinics and fluttering banners urging farmers to help build the economy.
At one ambitiously large cooperative in the outskirts of Pyongyang, the Taedonggang fruit farm, cottages with bright blue roofs house some 500 families, each home equipped with a TV set at Kim Jong Il's orders, according to Kim Mi Hye, a 20-year-old employee at the farm.
Fledgling apple trees stretch as far as the eye can see — up to 12 miles (20 kilometers), according to state media.
After farmers planted nearly 380,000 apple trees in 2009, the 1,500-acre (600-hectare) cooperative has since begun raising pigs and cultivating bees for honey, farmworker Kim said. The farm is aiming for a harvest of 30,000 tons of fruit next year, she said.
Still, the state's farming cooperatives don't yield enough food to fulfill the late president's promise of rice and meat soup on every table.
For a decade, rival South Korea helped fill the gap, both with aid and trade. But President Lee Myung-bak stopped nearly all cooperation with the North last year following a torpedo attack on a warship that killed 46 South Korean sailors.
As a result, North Korean exports to South Korea dropped from an average $40 million a month during the first half of 2010 to an average $1 million a month so far in 2011, according to the Korea Development Institute in Seoul.
The steep loss of income comes at a time of rising global food prices.
With rations dwindling, many North Koreans buy their own food through entrepreneurial means or barter, said Stephan Haggard, a professor at the University of San Diego who studies the North Korean economy.
Others grow what they can in communal gardens. The worst off are those living in the smaller cities in North Korea's impoverished, remote northeast, who do not have the means or connections to supplement their diminishing rations, experts say.
Even as the hunger worsens, the state appears determined to rally national pride at home. A performance at Kim Il Sung plaza attended by leader Kim and son Kim Jong Un last October depicted dancing ostriches and fish leaping out of a rollicking sea — homegrown resources the North Koreans hope will augment the country's food supply.
Immaculate and organized, the ostrich farm in the Pyongyang suburb of Sunan sits on rolling hills with verdant landscaping, thanks to the 560,000 trees planted on what was once bare ground. Kim Jong Il ordered the gawky birds imported from Africa at $10,000 a pop in the late 1990s, said guide Kim Jin Ok, giving The Associated Press a private tour.
But ostriches are native to warm climates, and North Korea is brutally cold in winter. They're also still wild at heart, temperamental, feisty and sensitive to noise, she said.
"When we brought them from Africa, it was winter and so cold, so we made vests for them to wear," Kim recalled with an embarrassed laugh.
Today, 10,000 ostriches are grouped in pens that line a long road dubbed Ostrich Alley. State-of-the-art equipment, including a gleaming $1.2 million dismembering machine and sausage maker, were imported from France and Italy.
Leader Kim so loves to stroll around the farm, surveying Ostrich Alley from a hilltop perch, that he has made more than 70 visits over the years, the guide said.
Why ostriches? "The appeal of ostriches is that nothing is wasted," guide Kim said. She showed off goods for sale and on display in a small shop on the farm grounds: sausages lined up like cigars, high heels and men's loafers, wallets and purses, feather dusters and painted eggs on carved wooden stands.Comment on this story
A South Korean professor who studies the North's agriculture dismissed the farm as a "show" and said ostriches are no real solution to hunger in North Korea.
"Ostriches are rich in protein. Ostrich farms have nothing to do with improving the people's lives," Kim Kyung-ryang of Kangwon National University said. "Vegetables are what matter. Food other than staples are a luxury."
Associated Press writer Sam Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report. Follow Jean H. Lee on Twitter at http://twitter.com/newsjean and David Guttenfelder at http://twitter.com/dguttenfelder.