North Korea's failed attempt to reform its currency has worsened shortages of food and other necessities, devalued its money and made it more reliant on China for survival. 'The country is like a tinderbox,' said Ye Yonglie, a veteran Shanghai journalist who has visited North Korea and written a book on it that was banned on the mainland. 'The regime is in great danger. The reform has angered the ordinary people, who have hatred in their heart but do not dare to say it. They have lost faith in their currency.' At the end of November, North Korea abolished its old banknotes and introduced a new currency; it allowed people to exchange only a limited amount of new money, at a rate of 100 old to one new. It wiped out most of the private wealth of entrepreneurs who had traded in free markets. The government also banned the holding or use of foreign currency, which is widely used to smuggle in basic goods from China. The reform, which aimed to combat the black market, has had the opposite effect. The black market rate for the won against the US dollar has increased from 30 in November to more than 2,000. The black market price of one kilogram of rice has risen from 600 won at the end of January to more than 1,000 won now. 'Koreans saw much of their savings wiped out,' Ye said. 'They have lost faith in the won and fear more reforms. So they are rushing to buy US dollars and renminbi. I saw a legal market for won/RMB in Dandong and an illegal one in Shinuiju (the South Korean city across from Dandong on the Yalu river). Renminbi are very popular.' According to one think tank in South Korea, desperate citizens attacked a train in the northeast of the country carrying grain from China on February 16, the birthday of the national leader Kim Jong-il; they attempted to take grain but were driven back by armed police, who killed one man. Radio Free Asia quoted members of a foreign delegation visiting Pyongyang saying that even the prestigious Koryo Hotel, where high-ranking foreigners stay, had no kimchi. 'The city's economic life has come to a halt. There are no goods in the shops and construction workers are staying away. In 10 visits here, I have never seen anything like this.' Millions of citizens rely on foreign aid for food. But donor patience is diminishing. The United Nations' World Food Programme said that, because of low resources received for emergencies, it had reduced its operations in North Korea to 62 counties from 131 and closed three of its five field offices. 'Depending on resources received, WFP will be able to feed up to 1.88 million North Koreans, mainly children in institutions, pregnant and lactating women and the elderly.' It said that the progressive improvement in food security between 2001 and 2005 had been reversed in recent years and the country's reliance on external food supplies was again increasing. 'It has suffered the effect of the global commodity crisis, with sharp increases in market prices for staple foods and fuel. Most North Koreans sustain themselves by consuming only maize, vegetable and wild foods, a diet lacking protein, fats and micronutrients.' Ye said that if Kim Jong-il were assassinated there would be a coup d'etat. 'He trusts no one, except his own children. Even where he sleeps is a secret. He never takes a plane.' In this hour of crisis, Kim can, like his father, turn to one friend who will not let him down - China. The regime would not have lasted so long without Chinese supplies of grain, petrol and consumer goods. China provides 90 per cent of North Korea's crude oil and 80 per cent of its consumer goods, each year running a large surplus. In late February, the two countries signed an agreement under which China will build a four-lane bridge over the Yalu river from Dandong to Shinuiju, with Beijing bearing the entire cost of US$150 million. There is currently one bridge, carrying rail and lorries, over the bridge, which cannot meet the demand for trade. The new bridge will facilitate trade and investment and be a symbol of friendship. North Korea also announced that the two largest islands in the estuary of the Yalu, Huangjinping and Weibei, would become special economic zones, with visa-free access for foreigners. It wants to attract Chinese firms to build factories, especially for fish and animal products and household necessities. Up to now, interest by private Chinese companies in North Korea has been very limited, because of frequent changes of policy; shortages of power, raw materials and foreign exchange; excessive bureaucracy; and restrictions on repatriating profits. 'Chinese firms have many better places to invest, including at home,' Ye said. The trump card which Kim holds in talks with Beijing is its determination to keep his regime in place. 'It does not want Kim's government to collapse,' said Jin Zhong, editor of Kaifeng (Open) magazine. 'A unified Korea would be a democratic Korea. Beijing does not want that. [President] Hu Jintao said that, in ideology, China should learn from Cuba and North Korea. It will put pressure on Kim but will still support him.' The Yomiuri Shimbun of Japan reported that Kim would visit China in late March to ask for aid.