WHO to believe? An isolated communist nation crying ''famine'' or an American ally saying ''prove it.''
Recent appeals for food aid by North Korea have placed the US in an awkward position with long-time friend South Korea. But American officials hope a meeting Wednesday in Honolulu with officials from Seoul and Tokyo will yield some answers. They will discuss the veracity of North Korea's claims of a looming humanitarian crisis.
In a move that may have been aimed at the US, North Korea announced Saturday that it will stop looking for the remains of US soldiers missing in action.
The cool international response to the reported famine has angered the isolated Communist country's leaders.
The announcement stated that America's lack of ''appreciation'' and ''compensation'' contributed to its decision to disband the team looking for MIAs from the 1950-53 Korean war.
Many South Korean observers see this action aimed at getting the food aid. And, they say, the North's claims of looming disaster are vastly exaggerated.
They point to a larger problem - the North's flawed farming techniques inherited from it ideological mentors, Mao and Stalin.
For example, they point to Pyongyang's ''10 Year Plan to Transform Nature'' aimed to carve 125 sq. miles of mountains into terraces, and reclaim 625 square miles of the west coast. Fertile soil was carried up hillsides and dikes were built at sea.
But Michael Breen, a Seoul-based consultant for Breen and Gustaveson Consultancy, says that yields on the new crop lands were 1.5 times lower than normal.
Had the plan succeeded, there would have been a 40 percent increase in total arable land. And, says Koh Il Dong, a researcher at the Korea Development Institute in Seoul, the lack of trees on mountainsides and badly engineered terraces caused the topsoil to be washed away.
Instead, it was just one in a line of agricultural management mistakes preceding the current disaster.
South Korean experts agree with officials from the North that last fall's great floods in the North reduced the food supply. But whether shortages could destabilize the North, leading to internal collapse or military adventurism is debatable, the South Koreans say.
And the North's growing population, a shortage of fertilizers and pesticides, heavy rains and cold snaps have kept it from keeping up with its crop output.
But many analysts here say that the problem with the North's agriculture, is the problem with its whole economy.
The floods made a bad thing worse. For the first time ever, North Korea invited in humanitarian groups, including the UN World Food Programme. But many observers say the floods have been used as an opportunity to save face while asking for aid that has been needed for a while.
Depending heavily on the North Korean government for data, the UN estimates the floods destroyed up to 1.87 metric tons of crops.
Mr. Koh says there was ''clear indication'' the North tried to exaggerate the damage. Citing satellite photos, he estimates a loss closer to 300,000 tones - about 5 percent of total production - or ''somewhere between'' that and the UN figure.
Other analysts say the North's problem with output probably doesn't stem from poor technique. According to Kim Woon Goon of the South's Rural Development Institute, experimental farms in North Korea grow 4.5 tons of rice per hectare, compared with the actual output on collective farms of 2.3 tons.
The government, to increase production, and partly to shift attention to local authorities, has recently let hungry farmers rely on kitchen gardens for more of their needs.
Researchers at South Korean think tanks say these small plots are not for staples, so wouldn't be much of a solution to the larger problem.
Lee Min-bok, a researcher at North Korea's Dry-Field Crops Institute before he defected last February, says, ''Although 'individual patch farming' is what the regime of Kim Jong Il dislikes most, even party cadres give tacit permission to this illegal and 'reactionary' individual farming.''
This tolerance may be a step toward higher yields, but what is needed is to change cooperatives into family farms. But Pyongyang has no such plans, and takes its control over food very seriously as is evidenced by its slogan: ''Rice is Socialism.''
Individual farms have high crop yields in North Korea. But Pyongyang still clings to the slogan 'Rice is Socialism.'