North Korea facing 1 milion tonne food shortage-WFP

Lindsay Beck

North Korea has admitted for the first time to food shortages of a million tonnes, the World Food Programme said on Monday, adding that in the absence of better donor support, millions are vulnerable to hunger.

In the past that food gap — which represents about 20 percent of North Korea’s needs — was met by a combination of bilateral aid, WFP support, loans and commercial interests, but those sources are all drying up, the WFP said.

“This is a very significant development that they themselves are confirming they have a gap of 1 million tonnes,” WFP Asia director Tony Banbury told Reuters.

The figure, which is in line with U.N. estimates, was given in a meeting with the vice-minister of agriculture, Banbury said in an interview from North Korea, where he met officials at the Agriculture Ministry and Foreign Ministry and spent three days in the field.

“There is a real food security problem in the country that is now not being met either by domestic production or external sources.”

North Korea suffered a famine in the mid-1990s that killed as many as 2.5 million people, and has since suffered chronic food shortages.

The WFP began working there in the aftermath of the famine and grew into its biggest humanitarian agency, but was forced to radically scale back its programme last year after the government said it no longer wanted handouts.

Under its new programme, the U.N. agency aims to reach about 1.9 million people, but Banbury said a lack of donor support meant it was only reaching 700,000 of a total population of about 23 million.

North Korea, which tested its first nuclear device last year and is at the centre of diplomatic efforts to dismantle its atomic programme, has made incremental improvements in the nutritional status of children, but that could be reversed.

“There is a real risk that we’re going to see backtracking on the improvements, and people who are just on the edge and vulnerable could find themselves in a very difficult situation from a food and nutritional standpoint,” Banbury said.

Despite the close government watch maintained throughout the visit, Banbury said that for the first time WFP officials were granted a spontaneous request to see government warehouses that store WFP-donated food.

“On the one hand, it was very innocuous — it was just a warehouse with sacks of food in it. On the other hand, it was symbolically, quite important and welcome,” he said.

There were also moments of frankness from officials in the country known for its reclusiveness during Banbury’s visits to a paediatric hospital, a boarding school and orphanages in the west of the country.

“In every institution we visited there were malnourished children, according to the officials there themselves, not just our observations,” Banbury said.

Some of the children were severely malnourished, he said.

“It was my impression that the person on the street — the woman riding the bicycle, the kid walking along the side of the street — was thin and hungry and needed more food than they were getting.”


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