Food Supply Tenuous for Two-Thirds of N. Koreans

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), June 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Food Supply Tenuous for Two-Thirds of N. Koreans


Byline: Associated Press

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- Millions of North Korean children are not getting the food, medicine or health care they need to develop physically or mentally, leaving many stunted and malnourished, the United Nations said Tuesday.

Nearly a third of children under age 5 show signs of stunting, particularly in rural areas where food is scarce, and chronic diarrhea 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 U.N.'s Pyongyang-based resident coordinator 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.

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 program denounced by the U.N., 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.

Worries of another drought have also been raised by a reported shortfall of rain this spring in some areas, which will likely lead to reduced harvest in the fall. The apparent effects of the drought were witnessed by The Associated Press in May in South Phyongan province.

"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 Cooperative Farm in the Nampho area, told the AP 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 Program 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 U.N. 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're lucky, while many children are growing up without eating any protein, Sauvage said. …

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