WONJONG BORDER POST, North Korea (Reuters) - Impoverished North Korea appears to have emerged from the depths of a bad winter and late spring in reasonable shape, at least in the far north and south, where a variety of crops are nearly ready for harvest.
The North has pleaded for food aid this year due to bad weather and the impact of international sanctions imposed for its nuclear program, winning donations in recent months from Russia, the European Union and U.N. organisations after sending in their own assessment teams.
But South Korea and the United States have so far refused food aid, granting only emergency aid to help the impoverished state deal with flood damage from a series of bad storms in the middle of the year.
Washington says it is still assessing the North's requests, while Seoul says it doubts Pyongyang's pleas are genuine. Until the imposition of sanctions, the two had been the biggest aid donors to the North, which has suffered chronic food shortages for years.
During a five-day trip which started near the China-Russia border and ended at the South Korean border, foreign journalists saw that fields in the respective Rason and Kumgang zones were lush with crops, sometimes stretching over many acres.
"We had bad winter, and late spring, but the crops look good now," said a North Korean guide who escorted a group of foreign journalists on a rare trip through the areas this week. The harvest is due in October.
From the North Korean border post of Wonjong to the port of Sonbong, about 70 km (43 miles) away, the area had many fields of corn and rice. Maize was growing over a meter high in small plots around many of the small bungalow style houses in village compounds while communal rice fields sometimes stretched for acres.
Soybeans and potatoes are also grown in the area, the North Korean guide said. There was little livestock, but some healthy-looking cows were seen grazing. Three people were seen riding horses.
Western journalists have not been taken to the area before, at least in recent memory. Pyongyang, with China's backing, has this year broken ground on new infrastructure projects in the zone as it attempts to woo foreign investors to generate hard currency for the state's flailing economy.
In another special 'international' zone with more market-oriented rules, the resort of Kumgang which was built with South Korean capital, the area was lush with the same crops, as well as barley and cabbage. There were also some orchards, along green houses with vegetables.
Men, women and children were working in the fields, along with a couple of ox-drawn ploughs.
But, not one item of mechanized farm equipment was seen during the entire trip.
An Australian tourist, who traveled in the center of the country, driving two hours north of Pyongyang and five hours from the capital to the South Korean border, said he had seen acres and acres of crops ready for harvest.
"I don't know about the politics of it all, but what I saw was plenty of crops that looked really good," said 51-year-old Max Ward, touring the country for a week with a friend.
"And the kids all seemed happy and they certainly didn't look like they were starving. Sure, there is poverty, but no more than any other third world country."
A resident of the Rason area, who cannot be identified, said adults were entitled to 700 grams (1.54 pounds) of rice per day and children 300 grams under the socialist state's public distribution system.
"Everyone uses the market to buy everything," he said. "This is allowed because we are in the Rason Special Economic Zone."
The marketplace was a hive of activity when foreign journalists were shown around the complex which was the size of about four football fields. Bags of rice and other grains as well as meats and cooked foods were also for sale.
But trading was not just restricted to the market. Vendors were sold juice and watermelon throughout the town.
At the beach front, a few dozen people were seen having a picnic, and about a dozen people were swimming in the sea.
Outside a tourist office in the town, a vendor was even selling ice-cream. Despite pleas for food aid, reclusive North Korea observes of policy of juche, or isolation, saying it can stand on its own without any outside help.
Editing by Yoko Nishikawa