UNITED NATIONS — North Korea has drastically cut public food handouts as it heads towards a new hunger crisis with people again eating grass to survive, one of the most experienced aid workers in the isolated nation said.
Food rations have been cut to as low as 150 grammes (5.3 ounces) a day per person in some parts of the country as foreign donations collapse and higher international prices make imports more expensive, said Katharina Zellweger, head of a Swiss government aid office in Pyongyang.
At the same time, Zellweger, who has been active in North Korea for 15 years, said there are definite signs of change.
A new moneyed middle class is emerging while the strictly regimented state had lauded a new "mini-MBA" run by her agency using Hong Kong teachers.
Food supplies to the estimated population of 23 million people have been controlled through a public distribution system for decades.
"It works sometimes and sometimes it doesn't work," the head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation office in Pyongyang told a group of UN correspondents.
"The lowest I heard was 150 grammes per person per day, and I even heard that in Pyongyang the rations are cut to 200 grammes per person per day."
Diplomats say the rations have been halved over the past 18 months. One hundred grammes of rice produces about 250-350 calories a day, experts said.
Zellweger said she had seen "a lot more malnourished children" on recent travels around the country.
"You see more people out in the fields and on the hillsides digging roots, cutting grass or herbs. So there are signs that there is going to be a crisis."
North Korea went through a famine in the late 1990s in which hundreds of thousands died of hunger.
"What we had this year is many small shocks which is building up to new crisis. What I think is the question we are all grappling with, is when is the tipping point? When does the situation shift from chronic malnutrition to acute malnutrition?"
Zellweger said that "a long, miserable cold winter" had badly hit spring crops and potato seedlings. This has compounded reduced foreign aid as North Korea faces a hardline attitude from the rival South Korea and the United States over its nuclear weapons programme.
The United States has demanded proof that food aid will not be misused before it resumes shipments. South Korea used to provide up to 350,000 tonnes a year of fertilizer. This stopped in 2007.
The World Food Programme sent 136,000 tonnes of food to North Korea in 2008 but donations have dried up and this fell to 55,000 tonnes last year and by this month only 11,000 tonnes had been sent this year, Zellweger said.
"Hunger is not necessarily visible in the streets," said the aid worker, who worked for a Swiss charity in the North before taking over the Swiss government programme five years ago.
"If you don't have a trained eye it is a lot of hidden misery and that was also the case in 1995. It was not hunger in the streets, it was very much behind closed doors."
Only the trained eye can see the changes in Pyongyang in recent years.
Zellweger called it the four Ms: the emergence of private markets, the greater role of money, mobile phones which have set off a communications revolution -- even though no calls abroad can be made -- and the emergence of a middle class in the capital.
"People are much better dressed, much more colourful. Before it was olive green and blue, now it is bright and colourful. Girls, if they can, dress more modern. They wear makeup and a bit of jewelery. There are also more cars in Pyongyang. There is just a bit more drive than a year ago."
The Swiss agency runs agricultural programmes but the change can really be seen in a "mini-MBA" course that her agency has launched at the Pyongyang Business School, said Zellweger.
Teachers flown in each month by the Hong Kong Management Association hold seminars for middle managers who take a test, do group work and have to attend 10 of the 12 seminars to get a diploma.
"Hong Kong people are used to dealing with people from all walks of life. Many of them have overseas factories and on top of that they have experience of China. That brings them so much closer to the situation in the North."
Change cannot be imposed from the outside, said the long-time North Korea watcher, but the government is "very happy" with the results.
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