File photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Photograph:( Reuters )
The head of the UN's World Food Programme said today it appeared North Korea was "turning a new page in history", following a four-day visit to the country.
David Beasley said he had enjoyed unprecedented access to the secretive state, spending two days in the capital Pyongyang and two in the countryside, accompanied by government minders.
He said there was undoubtedly a hunger problem in North Korea but it was not on the scale of the 1990s famine.
North Korea's economy has been devastated by its own mismanagement and crippling international sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme. However, its relations with the rest of the world are rapidly changing, with leader Kim Jong Un on a charm offensive.
Beasley told BBC radio that North Korea's leaders had a "sense of optimism".
Dialogue brokered by Seoul has seen US-North Korea relations go from trading personal insults and threats of war last year to a summit between Kim and President Donald Trump due in Singapore on June 12.
"There is a sense of turning a new page in history," said Bealsey, 61, the former governor of South Carolina.
He described the farming he witnessed outside the capital, in a country where only around a fifth of the land is arable.
"One of the most powerful things that I saw was out in the countryside -- it's spring, they're planting -- there's not mechanisation. You've got oxen pulling ploughs, men and women in the fields," said Beasley.
"It's very structured, very organised, every foot and inch of dirt is being toiled with rakes and hoes and shovels, and they're literally planting crops up to the edge of the road, down embankments, using every available space because it is a land that's mostly mountainous." North Korea has periodically been hit by famine, and hundreds of thousands of people died -- estimates range into the millions -- in the mid-1990s.
Beasley said: "I didn't see starvation like you had in the famine back in the 1990s, that's the good news. But is there a hunger issue, is there under-nutrition? There's no question about it." A United Nations-led report in March said chronic food shortages and malnutrition were widespread.
Around 41 percent -- 10.5 million people -- were undernourished, it said Around 18 million North Koreans, or 70 percent of the population including 1.3 million children aged under five, depend on the government-run Public Distribution System for rations of cereal and potatoes.
But most people do not consume a sufficiently diverse diet for healthy development, the report said. (AFP)