UN: North Korea's policies cause the nation's food shortages

"Travelling round the country, you cannot help but notice the people are generally short and thin," says the UN's humanitarian chief after visiting North Korea.
BEIJING // North Korea will continue to face food shortages unless its government addresses "major structural issues" and attracts investment, the UN's humanitarian chief said after a fact-finding mission to the country.

While describing the "urgency" of the situation in North Korea, and saying international aid appeals were badly underfunded, Valerie Amos insisted responsibility for solving repeated food crises lay with the country's government and its need to tackle the underlying causes of poor agricultural production.

Following a five-day visit, Ms Amos painted a devastating portrait of a nation with chronic malnutrition problems that have stunted the growth of much of the population. In northern parts of the country as many as 45 per cent of children under age 5 are malnourished, while nationwide the figure is one third.

"A large number of the children in the country are stunted," she said. "Children who are malnourished have an impact for generations to come. Travelling round the country, you cannot help but notice the people are generally short and thin."

As many as 6 million people need food aid, the UN estimated early this year, and supply shortages meant daily per person rations from the public distribution system (PDS) were halved in July to 200 grams.

In April the UN launched a $218 million appeal for food aid, but Ms Amos said this was only 34 per cent funded, a particular concern given that typhoons and floods over the summer have compounded chronic shortages brought about by an absence of mechanisation, poor seeds, lack of fertilisers and other factors.

The country's average annual "food gap" is 1 million tonnes out of a total food requirement of 5.3 million tonnes, Ms Amos said.

People survive largely on maize, cabbage and rice "if they're lucky" and there has been a "slow deterioration" of living conditions since the mid 1990s.

"The focus through the public distribution system is one providing carbohydrates. There's very little protein in the diet," Ms Amos told reporters shortly after landing in Beijing after a visit that included trips to hospitals, a communal farm, a market and a biscuit factory.

While she saw a market where meat and fish were on sale, Ms Amos said people told her they were unable to afford these.

Rice yields are about 2.8 tonnes per hectare, about half that in most countries, with soil degradation, lack of fertilisers and limited mechanisation blamed.

"People harvest basically by hand. Much gets lost as a result," said Ms Amos, the UN's emergency relief coordinator and undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

Ms Amos said she emphasised to government officials the "chronically poor and underdeveloped" country had "to address ... underlying structural issues leading to a humanitarian situation".

"The answer doesn't rest with the international community coming in and supporting the public distribution system. The government has to take responsibility," she said.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation is "very concerned" at the poor quality of seeds used by farmers and officials want to encourage "more sustainable" methods of agriculture.

"There's a limit to what the UN can do," said Ms Amos. "The government has to rethink its policies. They talked about the need to attract investment."

North Korea is under heavy international sanctions as a result of its nuclear programme. The United States has held back food aid this year and South Korea has not provided supplies since 2008. Before leaving Pyongyang, Ms Amos told reporters other countries should put aside political concerns and give aid.

There are concerns food aid is stockpiled for emergency situations or channelled to the military, although Ms Amos said she saw "no evidence of that", adding the UN's World Food Programme had "clear controls" to monitor where consignments went.

dbardsley@thenational.ae

Published: October 23, 2011 04:00 AM

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