Even as missile and nuclear tests alienate humanitarian aid donors, North Korea is facing a cold winter in which it is unlikely to be able to feed its people.
The danger of widespread suffering raises the critical question of how the world can unite in a forceful response to North Korea's nuclear test – the focus of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visits this week to Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing – and still rescue the North's hungry people.
Compelled to ask for huge donations of food at the height of a famine that killed some 2 million people in the 1990s, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was confident enough last year to order the World Food Program and other aid-givers to leave or vastly reduce their programs.
But the North may again need aid – at a time when missile tests in July, followed by the nuclear test this month, have reduced donors' desire to rush in to help.
"There is relatively little humanitarian assistance going in now," says Anthony Banbury, the UN World Food Program's regional director for Asia. "The willingness of donors to meet those needs has not been very strong."
The WFP says it needs $100 million this year to fulfill its goals for North Korea. So far, it has received only 10 percent of that total.
The United States has given more than $1.1 billion since 1995, 60 percent of which has gone to food aid. Forty percent was energy aid sent through the 1994 program – now shut down – designed to provide twin energy reactors in exchange for a shutdown of the North's nuclear program.
The US cut donations to the WFP this year after North Korea ordered the WFP to slash the size of its mission in Pyongyang from nearly 50 people to 10 people and shut its five regional offices, from which inspectors tried to monitor distribution.
South Korea, which suspended food aid after the North's nuclear test, sharply reduced food donations, on which the North depended to make up a shortfall of more than 1 million tons of rice, after the July missile tests. It relented when North Korea pleaded for help after severe flooding in August.
But it sent only half of the 100,000 tons it had said it would send in "emergency" aid – compared with 500,000 tons last year. That was the largest source of food for the North after China, which is also believed to have sharply cut shipments. Both the Chinese and South Korean programs have been entirely independent of the WFP – and monitoring has been weak.
The reluctance to try to stave off another famine contrasts with the response in 1995, when North Korea for the first time asked the World Food Program to help.
By 1997, aid shipments through the program crested at more than 500,000 tons a year, with the US leading all donors. But the WFP last year sent in less than 100,000 tons, half of it from the US.
South Korean officials oppose shutting off economic contacts, much less boarding and interdicting North Korean ships, but say they are in a quandary when it comes to donations of rice.
"It's a kind of dilemma," says Kang Jong-suk, an official at the Unification Ministry, which had been avidly pursuing reconciliation. "South Korea wants to send some humanitarian aid, but there is a barrier because of the UN resolution."
He says as well "the problem of transparency" inside North Korea, which means that, "We cannot monitor what will happen."
That inability to monitor has played a significant role in other donors' willingness to offer aid.
"The US has very strong reservations ... because of conditions imposed by the North Koreans," says Mr. Banbury of the WFP.
"Those conditions are so onerous, it's very hard for donors," he adds. "It's not just specific restrictions. It's an overall atmosphere. It's a constant struggle to do our work in North Korea."
South Korean officials fully expect Secretary Rice, when she arrives here Thursday, to pressure them to scale down investment in the Kaesong special-economic zone and the Mount Kumkang region, showcase projects seen as prying the North open to broader contacts.
The irony, in the view of Banbury, is that the UN Security Council resolution specifically exempts humanitarian assistance from the categories barred for shipment to North Korea, ranging from luxury goods to components for missiles, nuclear warheads, and other heavy weapons.
One reason that North Korea cut down inspections was apparently confidence that harvests would improve. The harvest was better last year, but this year, flooding and erosion have damaged prospects.
"So you have less food, a smaller harvest, and a large number of people who do not have access to food," says Banbury.
He opposes giving up. "Walking away would stop assistance to millions of people and would stop an avenue of dialogue," he says. "It's better to stay engaged than to not stay engaged."
Opinions vary widely, though, on how firmly to enforce the sanctions imposed by the UN – or whether to renew efforts to reopen dialogue.
Kim Dae Jung, the former South Korean president who initiated the Sunshine policy of North-South reconciliation after his election in 1997, supports dialogue – not just renewal of the six-party talks on the North's nuclear program, but direct US-North Korean dialogue.
"The US objects to talking directly to North Korea," he says, citing as precedents President Nixon's visit to China in 1972 and US negotiations with North Vietnam before the signing of the 1973 Paris peace agreement.
"We have to encourage them to talk," Mr. Kim goes on. "There have to be negotiations and giving and taking."
More sanctions, he says, will invite "strong responses" leading to an escalation of tension and "new problems" in which China will step to the aid of the North and "countries like Cuba and Venezuela will try to help North Korea."
For aid-givers, the overriding concern is keeping North Koreans from starvation regardless of sanctions.
"We take the news that the internal situation is deteriorating very seriously," says Kay Seok, North Korean researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The right of food is one of the most fundamental human rights. If you die of hunger, what is the point of talking about freedom?"
But others wonder about the degree to which food aid is alleviating suffering.
"Reports show the malnutrition rate did not improve very much" as a result of food donations, says Joanna Hosaniak, senior officer with the Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, which aids North Korean refugees.
"Refugees from the northern part of North Korea say they didn't receive humanitarian assistance, or it was diverted after the monitoring group was gone," she adds.
The only solution, she says, is for North Korea to "divert resources from developing nuclear weapons to feeding its people."
Erica Kang at Good Friends, a South Korean group that analyzes North Korean issues and advises on policies, summarizes the aid conundrum.
"Everyone wonders if they should go on with humanitarian aid," she says. "It's pretty much the ordinary people who suffer the most. This is a winter coming. Thousands of North Koreans are suffering the consequences of problems they didn't make."