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At the Heart of North Korea's Troubles, an Intractable Hunger Crisis

"Kim Jong Il orders police to restrict the markets, but they don't always do what they are told," said Ishimaru, the editor whose journal documents daily life in the North. "So many police and other authorities are making money."

The government recently launched another of its periodic efforts to contain the markets, restrict their hours, limit what they sell, chase vendors off streets and halt unauthorized traffic of goods and people across the Chinese border. The measures have helped raise food prices, thinned profits and increased the cost of bribing border guards.

An order that prohibited women younger than 50 from working in markets was rescinded after it triggered clashes between female traders and police. Still, women must be at least 40, although many who are younger install their grandmothers as window-dressing in market stalls while they seek out buyers, Ishimaru said. Men are banned from selling in the markets.

Kim presides over a police state that tolerates no political opposition and keeps up to 200,000 people in political prison camps. His security apparatus could, if he gave the order, shut down the markets. But even in police states, people must eat -- and markets feed North Koreans while lining the pockets of the elite.

"The genie is out of the bottle," said a senior U.N. official with long experience in North Korea. "Putting it back in would cause such widespread economic disruption and increased vulnerability to hunger that it would be crazy to try."

The Politics of Food Aid

North Korea's million-ton food gap was filled in recent years by South Korea as part of a bid to ease tension on the Korean Peninsula.

The Seoul government gave a half-million tons of food annually, along with enough fertilizer to grow another half-million tons. Unlike the U.N. World Food Program and other international donors, which have a policy of "no access, no food," South Korea did not monitor who ate the food it gave. But last year, South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak, changed the rules.

"We have decided to monitor and secure delivery of food using the World Food Program procedures as our benchmark," said Lee Jong-joo, the humanitarian assistance chief in Seoul. "Unfortunately, we have had no dialogue whatsoever on these new conditions with North Korea."

North Korea, instead, got mad. It canceled military agreements and moved a long-range missile toward a launch center. Behind the anger is the food gap. Despite an unusually good harvest last fall, a U.N. food assessment in December found that more than a third of the population will need food aid this year.

With South Korea on the sidelines, the United States stepped in. Last May, it pledged a half-million tons of food, 80 percent of which was to be distributed by the World Food Program.

That pledge, though, has become ensnarled in North Korea's complex relationship with the United States. Pyongyang preaches anti-Americanism but is eager to establish diplomatic relations and trade with Washington. And while then-President George W. Bush once called North Korea part of an "axis of evil," the U.S. government has been by far the most generous single donor to the country since its famine.

The main sticking point in U.S. deliveries for the World Food Program is a dispute over the language spoken by food monitors. The North had long refused to allow monitors fluent in Korean, but last year it signed an agreement stipulating "no limit" on Korean speakers, according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because negotiations continue.

The United States insists that 12 Korean speakers join the U.N. feeding operation. Only three have been allowed.

The deadlock, which has dragged on into the Obama administration, triggered a U.S. decision in September to halt food deliveries to the World Food Program. Lacking food, the agency has shut down most of its feeding operation, although deliveries continue through a consortium of U.S. charities working in two provinces.

About 4.5 million people stopped receiving food aid in December, and rations for another 1.8 million people, most of them children, have been halved. They go hungry as North Korea and the United States bicker over how -- and in what language -- free food is to be handed over.

Special correspondents Stella Kim and Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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