Spectre of hunger again haunts North Korea, UN says

Hit by bad harvests and soaring prices, millions of North Koreans are hungrier than they have been in years, and many are seeking wild food in the countryside, United Nations officials say.

Undernourished people are scrounging for wild foods

In this photo released by the UN's World Food Program, malnourished children are seen at an orphanage in Chongjin City, North Korea, earlier this month. North Korea faces its worst food crisis since the late 1990s, the agency says. ((Associated Press))
Hit by bad harvests and soaring prices, millions of North Koreans are hungrier than they have been in years, and many are seeking wild food in the countryside, United Nations officials said Wednesday.

"We’ve found that many more people are now scavenging for wild foods which provide little nourishment and are difficult to digest," Jean-Pierre de Margerie, UN World Food Program country director for North Korea, said in a statement. "Food assistance to reach the hungry is urgently needed."

Famine is a recurring tragedy in North Korea, a nation of 23 million whose economy has withered under an eccentric blend of communism and personality cult.

The latest warning follows a UN survey in which experts visited hundreds of homes, child institutions and hospitals in the most comprehensive assessment of the country's food situation since 2004, the statement said.

Among the findings:

  • The majority of the families surveyed are living on cereals and vegetables alone.
  • Nearly three quarters of the households have reduced their food intake.
  • More malnourished and ill children are being admitted to hospitals and institutions.
  • Diarrhea caused by increased consumption of wild foods was one of the leading causes of malnutrition among children under five.
"Millions of vulnerable North Koreans are at risk of slipping towards precarious hunger levels," de Margerie said. "The last time hunger was so deep and so widespread in parts of the country was in the late 1990s."

The reasons for the food scarcity include flooding in August 2007 and successive poor harvests, compounded by high prices for staple foods, his agency said.

Many of the world's poorest people are suffering the effects of rising food prices, driven partly by fuel and fertilizer costs, demand from newly prosperous consumers in emerging economies and the use of food grains to make ethanol.

In North Korea, the World Food Program is launching an urgent effort to expand food distribution to reach 6.4 million people from its current 1.2 million caseload.

Although North Korea is seldom an easy place for foreign aid workers to operate, the agency said improved conditions were negotiated with the government in June.

More than 50 WFP international personnel will oversee food deliveries to 131 counties, up from the current 50, including some in the remote and famine-prone northeast, it said.

Food is already on the way, including up to 400,000 tonnes pledged by the United States, but more donations are needed, the statement said.

Donors to the WFP’s current program in North Korea include the United States ($60 million US), South Korea ($20 million), Russia ($8 million), Switzerland ($6.6 million), Germany ($3.4 million), Australia ($4.2 million), Cuba and Italy ($1.5 million each) and Canada, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg and Norway ($1 million each).