SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea's pleas for help amid worsening food shortages have largely fallen on deaf ears in South Korea where many say Pyongyang cannot be believed, but calls are growing to relax an outright ban on giving its reclusive rival food aid.
Experts and officials disagree on the extent of the problem in a country where hunger and malnourishment are rife. Aid agencies saying shortages have reached crisis point, whereas South Korea says the North's claims are exaggerated.
"I don't trust the North Korean government at all. However, I don't think the people in the North should be blamed. They are innocent and we need to help them in humanitarian ways," said Hong Suk-jin, 27, a student in the capital, Seoul.
Many younger South Koreans, who had backed the government's hardline response to a deadly North Korean attack on a southern island last November, urged Seoul to be more sympathetic.
"When sending aid to the North, there are risks of it being sent to unwanted areas like the military ... but it's a risk we need to take," said 24-year-old Cho Eun-young.
Aid agencies say a third of children under five are malnourished. A Reuters report last week detailed worsening conditions in the province of South Hwanghae, the main rice-producing region.
But experts say the North has endured chronic food shortages for nearly two decades and that the situation is nowhere near as bad as in the mid 1990s when up to a million people, many reduced to eating tree bark and grass, are believed to have died.
"I believe that reports about starvation are exaggerated and, to an extent, created by the government, even though some parts of the country might face rather dire conditions," said North Korea expert Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul.
"Nonetheless, providing North Korea with aid is still a good idea -- due to both humanitarian and pragmatic concerns ... aid will create some goodwill which will help to decrease tension."
Relations between the Koreas fell to their worst level in nearly two decades last year when 50 South Koreans were killed in two attacks, and the North revealed a uranium enrichment programme which opened up a second route to make an atomic bomb.
AID "TAKEN BY OFFICIALS"
While both Seoul and Washington say food aid is not political, they insist there must an improvement in ties between the Koreas before large scale food aid re-starts.
South Korea had been one of the biggest sources of aid to the North before the election of conservative President Lee Myung-bak four years ago resulted in a policy reversal, making aid and financial assistance dependent on denuclearisation.
In the three years before Lee took office, the South donated nearly one million metric tonnes of rice to its neighbour. Since then, it has sent only a few thousand tonnes.
"In the past, DPRK's chronic cereal deficit was alleviated to a certain extent by considerable amounts of bilateral food aid -- but this stopped around 2008/2009," said Marcus Prior of the U.N. World Food Programme, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"WFP believes that this year especially, the cumulative effect of that decline in large-scale assistance is starting to be felt."
South Korea and the United States also stress aid will only be resumed once they are satisfied that the monitoring process is completely transparent with food going to the most needy.
Most defectors Reuters has spoken to in the South this year say that food aid rarely reaches the most vulnerable.
"The food, mostly, is taken by high officials in the government and the army," said a 20-year-old defector surnamed Kim, who declined to give his other name. "Food aid hardly reaches the general public."
Both Seoul and Washington have tentatively started to open humanitarian aid channels since the middle of the year, particularly in light of the severe summer floods which the North says wiped out a quarter of grain production.
The Lighthouse Foundation aid agency in Seoul sent baby food and soybean milk to the North in August, but not before laying out Seoul's new guidelines to North Korean officials.
"They were not comfortable with the South Korean policy on monitoring and transparency," said Cho il, the agency's general secretary.
"But they agreed and definitely were more cooperative than before."
(Additional reporting by Seongbin Kang Iktae Park; Editing by Nick Macfie)