David Guttenfelder, Associated Press
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.
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