Some North Koreans are desperately foraging for wild grasses and herbs amid looming food shortages and alarming malnutrition, according to aid agencies which conducted a food security study in the reclusive nation this month.
The North Korean government had requested the needs-assessment study, informing the five agencies that there had been severe food shortages after poor summer weather and a bitter winter that significantly damaged crops.
The week-long assessment by seven experts was conducted in the provinces of North Pyongan, South Pyongan, and Chagang over a week from Feb. 8 to 15.
"The team observed evidence of malnutrition, food shortages, and people foraging for wild grasses and herbs," said a joint statement by the five agencies—Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan's Purse, and World Vision.
These trends, they said, were particularly prevalent among families that depend on the North Korean public food distribution system, and most severely impact children, the elderly, the chronically ill, and pregnant and nursing mothers.
Local hospitals reported an increase in malnutrition over the past six months, as well as an increase in related health problems such as low birth-weight babies, reduced ability of mothers to breastfeed, and increased recovery time from illness, said a summary of the findings provided to RFA by Mercy Corps.
"These health problems will almost certainly worsen if the current food supply drops," the summary report said, pointing out that the expert team observed children suffering from acute malnutrition, as well as evidence of stunting, wasting, and hunger-induced listlessness.
The team recommended that North Korea be considered for emergency food assistance targeting children, pregnant and lactating women, and other vulnerable groups.
North Korean authorities estimate that 50-80 percent of the wheat and barley planted for spring harvest, as well as potato seedlings, were destroyed by extreme cold in the past two months, the statement said.
In addition, it said, rising global food prices have reportedly made it difficult for North Korea to import sufficient food supplies.
Each of the five aid agencies involved in the assessment has more than a decade of experience working in North Korea.
In 2008, the five collaborated on a food security assessment, as well as a subsequent program that delivered 71,000 tons of U.S. government-funded food aid to 900,000 hungry North Koreans in Chagang and North Pyongan provinces.
In the recent visit, the experts were given extraordinary access to conduct the assessment by the Korea-America Private Exchange Society (KAPES), an organization that liaises with U.S.-based nongovernmental agencies.
The team visited 45 sites including hospitals, orphanages, citizens’ homes, cooperative farms, and warehouses.
Attacks on South Korea
North Korea recently ordered its embassies and diplomatic offices around the world to seek food help from foreign governments, which have become cautious of aiding a government accused of two deadly, unprovoked military attacks on U.S. ally South Korea in the past year.
Pyongyang also recently boasted it had developed a new system of producing fissile material that might be used for nuclear weapons.
Multilateral talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program have stalled for nearly two years.
The United States and other Western nations are in a dilemma over whether to ignore North Korea's pleas for food help or provide food for distribution within a corrupt system.
Some experts say diverted food aid is usually given to the military, redistributed as gifts for elites or resold—at a steep profit—to vendors in markets.
The U.N. World Food Program, responsible for much of the food aid in North Korea, said its current food supply could sustain operations in the country for only another month.
North Korea had planned to purchase 325,000 tons of food on the global market this year, but rapidly rising food prices have caused them to reduce that estimate to 200,000 tons, the joint statement by the five aid agencies said.
Only a fraction of this amount has been purchased thus far, they said.
Food exhausted by June
Total agricultural production for 2010 was reported at 5.12 million tons, well below the national food need of 7.93 million tons for a population of 24 million people.
"North Korean authorities estimate that food stocks will be exhausted by mid-June," the statement said.
It added that public distribution systems had cut rations to an average 360-400 grams a day for an adult. Current rations provide approximately 1,250 calories.
"With expected shortfalls in the spring crops, it is unlikely the rations will remain even at these meager levels."
Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.