North Korea, the world's most cloistered society, is confounding both friend and foe alike about the depth of the food shortage it now confronts.
That there is serious hunger is not in doubt. The issue is whether a humanitarian disaster is looming that could compel a desperate North Korea to start a war that would embroil the 37,000 American troops in South Korea.
Using its vast intelligence-gathering armory, the US is trying to fathom the depths of the shortage. And China may also be boosting its efforts to do the same.
But on the US side, officials say conflicting analyses from different agencies and a paucity of ground-level data from inside the world's last Stalinist bastion have left them without a reliable picture of the crisis.
"The question of the food problem in North Korea is the most hotly discussed and debated issue right now," says Kurt Campbell, a deputy assistant defense secretary who oversees US security policy in East Asia. "Personally, I am not very satisfied with the sort of assessments that I get, because they tend to vary not in terms of one magnitude, but two magnitudes."
US officials hope some answers might be provided by Hwang Jang-yop, architect of North Korea's juche ideology of self-reliance and former tutor of top leader Kim Jong Il. He defected to South Korea earlier this year. But they have yet to talk to him and are unsure of how much he knows.
The conflicting analyses and the dearth of information are fueling concern among some Clinton administration officials about Pyongyang's intentions. Adding to their concerns are disturbing new UN assessments of the food shortages, as well as the breakdown in April of a US-South Korean effort to persuade the North into negotiating a permanent peace to replace the truce that stilled the 1950-53 Korean War.
The US may not be alone in its apprehensions.
A senior official, speaking anonymously, says China, once Pyongyang's main patron, also seems to be more anxious. Says he: "We believe that within the last six months, China has begun to appreciate the depth of its lack of knowledge of what's going on in North Korea."
As a result, he says, Beijing has been boosting its intelligence-gathering operations by sending more agents into North Korea. It has also begun "subtle discussions" with Seoul on sharing intelligence and other cooperative measures.
At the same time, Beijing is taking steps it hopes will avert turmoil in North Korea - and a torrent of North Korean refugees across its border. It has promised more food aid to Pyongyang and has begun pressing it to abandon its archaic agricultural and Marxist-style economic policies. These policies, in combination with two years of floods, have produced the food shortages.
But the Chinese have made little progress, the official says. Still smarting from the diplomatic ties forged by Beijing and Seoul two years ago, Pyongyang has been further angered by China's decision not to return Mr. Hwang, who defected through Beijing in February.
Whether there is a peaceful resolution of North Korea's future may depend on the depth of the crisis, which is why gauging its extent is so important to US officials.
North Korea says it needs 1.3 million tons of grain and has made clear it wants big infusions of aid in return for negotiating a peace accord with South Korea.
The US has donated aid worth $33 million since September 1995 in response to United Nations appeals that have raised 200,000 tons of grain. The US says more aid could be discussed once Pyongyang agrees to peace talks. The impasse has left the future of the talks unclear.
Some US officials say Pyongyang could restructure its food-rationing system that favors the military and civilian elites and has left large segments of the 22 million population to forage on its own.
Amid accounts of starvation and people eating tree bark, some US officials are deeply perturbed by North Korea's behavior. They wonder if its refusal to engage in the peace talks means that it is ready to accept a certain level of deaths as it tries to "muddle through" the crisis, thereby avoiding losing face by negotiating with its sworn foe, South Korea.
A worst-case scenario holds that the regime could lash out with its 1.1 million-strong army at the South in a desperate gamble to seize territory. It would then bargain for concessions aimed at keeping it in power.
Of all potential trouble spots in Asia, "First and most threatening is the unpredictable regime in Pyongyang," said John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while in China yesterday. It "poses a major threat to peace on the Korean Peninsula and in the surrounding areas."
Other officials, while sharing that concern, believe that North Korea will eventually accept the "four-party" peace talks.
Weighing Pyongyang's intentions, however, has been hampered by the lack of data on the food shortage. The CIA estimates that last fall's wheat harvest in North Korea totaled 3.1 million metric tons. The Defense Intelligence Agency puts it at 2 million tons. South Korea pegs it at 3.7 million tons. North Korea says it was 2.5 million tons.
Other factors are complicating the analyses. Despite its claims of looming disaster, North Korea was able to stage large-scale military exercises earlier this year that consumed huge amounts of fuel and food, officials say.