Food Crisis Hits North Korea

As North Korea tests its expanding arsenal of deadly weapons, millions of its most vulnerable people face grave food shortages.

nk-food-305.jpg A North Korean worker unloads bags of U.S. wheat in the western port of Nampo, June 29, 2008.

SEOUL—North Korean families are feeling the pinch following Pyongyang's refusal of U.S. food aid earlier this year, with the United Nations saying it already sees a humanitarian crisis in the isolated Stalinist state.

"We do believe there’s a humanitarian crisis right now, especially for some of the more remote rural regions of the northernmost part of North Korea," World Food Program (WFP) senior spokesman Paul Risely said.

The WFP says it is currently able to operate at around only 15 percent of its capacity, feeding fewer than 1.5 million of the 6.2 million people already identified as in need of food aid this year.

"These are very vulnerable people," Risely said. "These are children in schools, children in orphanages, children in remote villages."

"And they are women and elderly people, especially pregnant women and women with large households and women who are nursing children," he said, adding, "We do not have enough funding from donors."

"The United States food, when it was being provided, was the backbone of the food that the World Food Program provided over the more than 100 different counties [in North Korea] in which we are permitted to operate," Risely said.

North Korea has suffered severe food shortages for more than a decade, and frequently faces accusations that international food aid has been taken away from the hungriest North Koreans and diverted to the military and ruling party elite.

Rising tensions

Pyongyang also barred the WFP from carrying out a planned nutritional survey in October 2008, which the agency said was crucial if the level of need in the population were to be identified.

Risely cited a clear need for rice, corn, biscuits, noodles, and powdered milk formula for children in the worst-hit areas.

"Without that food, the problem of malnutrition, and the problem of wasting and stunting and other food-insecurity problems that are caused, will only increase and will only continue, especially for children in these areas," he added.

North Korea cut off a planned U.S.-funded food aid program of 500,000 metric tonnes in March amid growing bilateral tensions with the United States.

The move followed disputes involving the use of Korean-speaking aid workers, who would be used to ensure the food reached the people for whom it was intended, which the WFP says is a pre-condition for its involvement.

WFP spokeswoman Lena Savelli said the agency is already seeing signs of stress from food shortages in North Korea.

No talks with U.S.

"Households [are] cutting down the number of meals they’re eating, eating more vegetables and wild foods as opposed to cereals," Savelli said, adding that more families with vegetable plots in the countryside are now beginning to take food to urban relatives, who are unable to grow their own.

But a U.S. official said Washington would still be prepared to continue to distribute U.S. food aid under certain conditions, regardless of political mood swings between Pyongyang and Washington.

"We would be open to consideration of resumption of the program,” the official said, if the resources were available and if Washington were sure the aid was reaching its intended recipients.

“Then we would be open to that discussion," the official said. But he said no dialogue had been forthcoming on any resumption of U.S. food aid.

"They’ve told us that for the time being they’re not interested in talking about it," the U.S. official said. "But they’ve got our phone number."

Original reporting by J.M. Noh for RFA's Korean service. Korean service director: Insop Han. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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