A human rights group says the food scarcity in North Korea is becoming more severe, and is being exacerbated by Pyongyang's recent policies. The general issue of how North Korea treats its citizens has become a matter of public contention between the United States and South Korea in recent days, underlining the two countries' basic philosophical differences in approaching the North.
The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch says North Korea's recent policy moves are helping push the country toward a renewed food crisis.
In a report released Thursday, the organization criticized Pyongyang's decision to ban the private sale of grain in markets, and to suspend emergency operations by the United Nations World Food Program.
North Korea recently reinstated its central food rationing mechanism, known as the Public Distribution System. But Tom Malinowsky, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, says that system has probably not functioned for a long time.
"A Chinese man of Korean descent who recently visited his relatives in the northeast of North Korea told us that none of the five homes he visited had received any rations since November of 2005," Malinowsky said.
The North Korean food issue, and the broader question of human rights there, are increasingly contentious issues between South Korea and the United States.
South Korea pursues a policy of active cooperation and economic engagement with the North, making no demands and voicing no public criticism of Pyongyang. South Korean officials say their gradual approach is building trust, and convincing Pyongyang to open North Korea slowly to the outside world.
Many organizations and countries, including the U.S., have donated food to North Korea since wide-scale famine hit the country in the 1990s. Those donations have been credited with helping to stave off mass starvation there.
But Washington is skeptical of Seoul's current policy of giving North Korea hundreds of thousands of tons of food and fertilizer a year, because there is little or no monitoring by outside agencies to ensure that the food reaches the general civilian population.
Jay Lefkowitz, the North Korea human rights envoy President Bush appointed last year, warned in a recent newspaper opinion piece that Seoul's unmonitored aid could worsen matters, and unwittingly prop up the North Korean regime.
South Korea's Unification Ministry reacted sharply on Wednesday to what it called Lefkowitz's "distorted interpretation of the issue." Officials here have labeled previous Lefkowitz remarks on North Korea "narrow-minded" and "anti-humanitarian."
South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jeong-Seok added his own voice to the dispute.
Lee says his government has its own position, and the two countries should respect each other's positions. I am sure, he says, that the U.S. has its own rationale.
Malinowsky of Human Rights Watch says his group recognizes the sensitivity of the North-South relationship. However, he says South Korea should help Pyongyang understand there are two sides to the engagement bargain.
"North Korea should not be allowed to believe that it can intimidate South Korea into silence on matters that affect the well-being and survival of millions of Koreans," he said.
Malinowsky says Seoul could adopt a somewhat firmer stand by acting in concert with the United States and the international community on the issue. That approach, he says, would increase the chances of improving the welfare of North Korea's citizens.