Report by UN agencies highlights food crisis in Democratic People's Republic of Korea

By Chris Niles

NEW YORK, USA, 7 April 2011 – The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is running out of food. About a quarter of the population – some 6 million people – don't have enough to eat, according to a new report by UN agencies. Nearly a million of them are children under the age of five.

The UN assessment – conducted by UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization – was done with unprecedented access to families in the country. Food is rationed in DPRK and authorities say that public distribution centres will be empty by the end of this month or early next. Unless immediate action is taken, the consequences will last much longer.

"Think about a population that's totally dependent on rations from the government, and we know that these rations are going to run out," said UNICEF Nutrition Specialist Mandana Arabi, one of the team that travelled to DPRK to complete the assessment. "There are really not a lot of resources they can tap into."

Severe shortages

The country is susceptible to food crises because of political and economic isolation, and climate change. Last year, widespread flooding in the country's main rice producing region resulted in a poor harvest. An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which affected the cattle used to harvest crops, also exacerbated shortages.

Many families have only two meals a day and their diet lacks the variety needed for good nutrition, with very little meat or fat. Stunting rates among young children are as high as 40 per cent in rural areas and 20 per cent in urban ones. "Dietary diversity is a big problem. Most of the diets are based on starches and grains, very few vegetable resources and not many animal sourced foods," said Dr. Arabi.

'Very vulnerable situation'

UNICEF is especially concerned about the health of children under the age of five, pregnant and lactating women, and large families with little income. It will be working with its sister agencies to ensure a prompt response to the emergency, which will be critical over the next three months.

"We have to see this as a very vulnerable situation and make sure we are there to ensure the rights of children," Dr. Arabi said. "We're very much concerned that micro nutrient deficiencies will become even more prominent, with their diets being so monotonous and not having any other sources of food."