Nature hasn't been kind to the North Koreans. Droughts, floods and typhoons are just some of what the elements throw at the Stalinist state. Serious flooding was to blame for a famine that plunged a fifth of North Korea's 23.3 million people into starvation. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) air-lifted in US$1.7 billion worth of food between 1995 and 2005. Pyongyang, citing better harvests, halted its emergency assistance in 2005, although a smaller WFP contingent returned last May. Paul Risley, Asia communications director for the WFP, told China Economic Review the extent of the problem.
Q: Has North Korea's own food production capacity improved since the problems of the 1990s?
A: Cereal production remains well below the minimum required. This is because of severe economic problems, limited agricultural land and machinery, and an acute energy crisis. Our sister organization, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), says the 2006 deficit will be 800,000 metric tons. That's about 15% of overall needs. Many people struggle to feed themselves on a diet critically deficient in protein, fats and micronutrients. Despite better harvests in recent years, the FAO has now estimated that the 2007 cereal deficit will be most likely more than 1 million tons. North Korea's 23 million people have a consumption need of 5.3 million tons of cereals.
Q: What does this deficit mean for the coming year?
A: Should current food import and food aid trends stay the same for the 2006-07 crop year, the country will face significant food shortages for a second consecutive year. This could lead to increasing malnutrition rates. Food is scarcest during the "lean season", which is the five-month period prior to the autumn rice and maize harvests. That's when stocks of the previous year's crops rapidly run down.
Q: What does the WFP do in North Korea today?
A: Today's program is much smaller than the Emergency Feeding Operation that WFP began in 1995. Today we provide food to over 700,000 of the most vulnerable people. These 700,000, mostly women and children, are among the country's most at risk of malnutrition; they live in both urban and rural areas. The WFP now provides a relatively small amount of food aid, less than 40,000 tons in 2006 out of the one million tons North Korea requires from external sources. The WFP program in North Korea is currently only 18% funded. We have US$18.6 million of the US$102 million needed.
Q: Is the DPRK mission one of your largest worldwide?
A: We presently employ 14 international staff in North Korea, a one-to-one ratio with local professional staff. If we are able to increase donor contributions for the humanitarian operation this year, WFP will be able to provide food assistance to approximately 1.9 million persons, again, mostly women and children, living in 50 of North Korea's 203 counties.
Q: What kind of food are you supplying?
A: The WFP provides food assistance to children in schools, to pregnant and lactating women, and young children in hospitals and orphanages. We contract factories in North Korea to produce biscuits for school populations and corn-soy milk and cereal and rice-milk blends appropriate for pregnant and lactating women and young children.
Q: Who are the main donors?
A: Russia, Switzerland, Cuba, Denmark, Australia, Luxembourg, Germany.
Q: Is the situation better in some regions of the country than others?
A: There are severe disparities in food availability between the south and west of the country, which have surpluses, and the north and northeast, which are food-deficient.
Q: Have recent economic reforms had any effect on food shortages?
A: Urban-rural disparities are even more pronounced. They were exacerbated by an economic adjustment process initiated in mid-2002 that triggered large-scale layoffs at ailing factories, steep cuts in pay levels and a rapid escalation in the market prices of staple foods. In January 2005 rations were cut to an average of 250 grams per person per day – 40% of the internationally recommended minimum calorie intake. In October 2005 the government declared rations would be raised to 500 grams a day but this appears to have had limited success. A ban on private trading in cereals remains in place.
Q: How bad is malnourishment among children?
A: While malnutrition rates have fallen since the late 1990s, they are still relatively high. The most recent large-scale survey, conducted in October 2004 by the WFP and the government, found 37% of young children to be chronically malnourished. Also, one-third of mothers were found to be both malnourished and anemic.
Q: North Korea has wanted to cut back NGO and donor access recently. Has that issue been resolved?
A: WFP's "no access, no food" policy continues to be strictly enforced. We will only provide food in areas where we can assess needs and monitor distributions. WFP staff monitors ports of origin and places of production and distribution to try to ensure the food reaches the intended beneficiaries. From the beginning of the relief and recovery operation in June 2006 until now, WFP has undertaken an average of 58 monitoring visits per month to assess the use of food assistance provided by the WFP across the 29 counties where we presently operate.