UN warns of North Korea food crisis
Millions of North Korean children are not getting the food, medicine or healthcare they need to develop physically or mentally, leaving many stunted and malnourished, the United Nations said today.
Nearly a third of children under the age of five show signs of stunting, particularly in rural areas where food is scarce, and chronic diarrhoea due to a lack of clean water, sanitation and electricity has become the leading cause of death among children, the agency said.
Hospitals are spotless but bare, few have running water or power, and drugs and medicine are in short supply, the agency said in a detailed update on the humanitarian situation in North Korea.
“I’ve seen babies... who should have been sitting up who were not sitting up, and can hardly hold a baby bottle,” Jerome Sauvage, the UN’s Pyongyang-based resident co-ordinator for North Korea, said in Beijing before presenting the report to donors.
The report paints a horrific picture of deprivation in the countryside, not often seen by outsiders, who are usually not allowed to travel beyond the relatively prosperous Pyongyang, where cherubic children are hand-picked to attend government celebrations and a middle-class with a taste for good food have the means to eat out.
Mr Sauvage’s report provides not only further evidence of North Korea’s inability to feed its people, but also bolsters critics who say the government should be spending on food security instead of building up its military, testing rockets and pursuing a nuclear programme denounced by the UN, the United States and South Korea.
The United Nations called for $198 million in donations for 2012 — mostly to help feed the hungry.
The appeal comes at a delicate time for North Korea, which has sought to project an image of stability and unity during the transition to power of the new, young leader, Kim Jong Un.
Yet the government has begun to publicly acknowledge a severe shortage of food for the first time in years.
In late May, in an unusual admission of a food problem by a high-ranking official, North Korea’s premier, Choe Yong Rim, urged farmers to do their part in alleviating the food shortage, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
Fears of another drought have also been raised by a reported shortfall of rain this spring in some areas, which is expected to lead to a reduced harvest in autumn.
“I have been working at the farm for more than 30 years, but I have never experienced this kind of severe drought,” An Song Min, a farmer at the Tokhae Co-operative Farm in the Nampho area, said as he stood in parched fields where the dirt crumbled through his fingers.
North Korea does not produce enough food to feed its 24 million people, and relies on limited purchases of food as well as outside donations to make up the shortfall. North Korea also suffered a famine in the mid- and late-1990s, the FAO and World Food Programme said in a special report late last year.
About 16 million North Koreans — two-thirds of the country — depend on twice-a-month government rations, the UN report said. And there are no signs the government will undertake the long-term structural reforms needed to spur economic growth, it said.
Rations usually consist of barley, maize or rice, if they are lucky, while many children are growing up without eating any protein, Mr Sauvage said. He said malnutrition over a generation can have a severe effect on physical growth, cognitive capacity and the ability to learn.
The land in the mountainous north is largely unsuitable for farming, and deforestation and outmoded agricultural techniques — as well as limited fuel and electricity — mean farms are vulnerable to the natural disasters North Korea is prone to, including flooding, drought and harsh, cold winters, the UN report said.