A famine may have hit North Korea’s grain-growing region last year, meaning thousands of people succumbed to hunger at the same time the country staged mass celebrations to commemorate the impoverished state’s founder, according to Japan-based news agency.

Rimjin-gang/ASIAPRESS said that unreported famine hit the North and South Hwanghae provinces between January-May 2012. The information comes from undercover journalists and North Korean defectors.

Rimjin-gang, an independent publisher based in Osaka, Japan, cited farmers and laborers in the region claiming that “about a tenth” of a work brigade of 60 people had died in one village in the southwest of the country. Another case cited said that the death rate had been “30 people out of every 1,000. They say this is thirty times as high as normal year”.

“Farming villages in the Hwanghae region, and especially in southern Hwanghae province, play an important part as a base for food supply for not just the army but also for city workers,” the report, published this week, said.

Sporadic famines are commonplace in North Korea, making it hard to verify the report independently, according to experts based in South Korea.

A senior research fellow at the Center of North Korean Studies at the Korea Institute for National Unification said: “Sporadic famines in separate areas are quite commonplace. Something like this is completely understandable”.

“There is a huge difference in the amount of food available to the common people and the people in the government and the military. There are basically no rations given to the common North Korean people,” Jeung Young-tae said.

A United Nations analysis in 2011 showed that around a third of children were malnourished. A nationwide famine in the 1990s was said to have killed a million North Koreans.