The United States and South Korea have reacted cautiously to reports of dire food shortages in the North, with some officials suspecting that the isolated communist state is exaggerating the problem to win assistance.
But Samaritan's Purse, one of five US groups that visited North Korea in February, said that a harsh winter has reduced crop yield by up to half and that some people were already eating grass, leaves and tree bark.
"We believe that, in many of the areas that we visited, in mid-June they're going to run out of food," said Ken Isaacs, the Christian-oriented group's vice president for programs and government relations.
"We are certain, based on our field surveys, that there is an urgent need and that if it's not met, people will suffer and people will die this year," he told a seminar at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank.
|A farmer sits on a cart pulled by a cow close to the North Korea-China border|
Isaacs said that the relief groups want to provide 160,000 to 175,000 tons of food to North Korea -- about half of what the regime requested -- but that it would be impossible to arrange shipments in time to meet the shortfall.
"If a green light was given today, that food probably isn't going to be into North Korea for about three months," Isaacs said.
Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans died in a famine in the 1990s. But North Korea, which prides itself on its "juche" philosophy of self-reliance, abruptly kicked out the US aid groups in 2009.
His warning came as former US president Jimmy Carter, a proponent of engagement with North Korea, led a delegation of elder statesmen to Pyongyang for talks on issues including food aid.
But US President Barack Obama's administration has held off on deciding whether to provide food assistance, with officials saying they want more evidence of an urgent need before committing to assistance.
Several lawmakers from the rival Republican Party have urged Obama not to authorize aid, fearing that North Korea wants the food for its elite or to stock up for next year's celebrations marking the 100th birth anniversary of the regime's founder Kim Il-Sung.
Robert King, the US special envoy on human rights, told the same forum that the Obama administration was still debating whether to send food to North Korea and wanted a way to monitor that it would go to people in need.
He said the United States would make its decision based on North Korea's needs, not on politics. But he pointed out that a number of nations -- some with better track records -- were competing for a share of tight aid budgets.
"The needs for humanitarian assistance have to be balanced with the need and demand for our assistance in other parts of the world as well," King said.
North Korea has also asked other countries for help. But South Korea, which for a decade maintained a flow of aid to its estranged neighbor, toughened its stance when conservative President Lee Myung-Bak took office in 2008.
Unification Minister Hyun In-Taek, who handles cross-border affairs, said Monday that the North's food shortage was not particularly worse this year despite its "unprecedented" requests for aid.
"Thus there seems to be some political motivation behind North Korea's recent plea for food aid," he said.
The Obama administration has followed a policy of "strategic patience" with North Korea, saying that it will wait for it to make clear commitments on key concerns, including ending its nuclear program.
The US administration has indicated that it will wait for its South Korean allies to decide when the time is right for dialogue. Tensions soared last year after North Korea shelled a civilian island and was accused of sinking a warship.
North Korea is also holding a US citizen, Eddie Jun, who sources said was arrested in November for missionary work after entering as a businessman.
Jun's family in California issued an open letter to the regime Wednesday urging his release, saying it was "extremely concerned" about his health and that he may not survive a trial or further detention.