5-5-15 – Food Shortages Still Stalk North Korea

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS–There’s an urgent food crisis in communist North Korea, where shortages affect up to 70 percent of the population.   According to an alarming new UN humanitarian report, some 18 million people out of the population of 24 million are considered “food insecure” and don’t have access to an adequate and diverse diet to live healthily.   To meet the challenge the UN needs $111 million for humanitarian aid over the next year.

The quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is no stranger to shortages and the recent humanitarian appeal evokes the question, “Haven’t we heard this before?”

Indeed in this bizarre communist kingdom of OZ, where the regime favors neutrons for its nuclear weapons over nutrition for its people, the food crisis remains chronic, cyclical, and callous to say the least. But at the same time, it’s very real.

The UN ‘s resident coordinator Ghulam Isaczai advises, “DPR Korea is both a silent and underfunded humanitarian situation…protracted and serious needs for millions of people are persistent and require sustained funding.”  Funding for a similar UN humanitarian appeal last year reached just under half of the projected goal.

Malnutrition stalks the land where 28 percent of children under five (540,000), face stunted growth while another 4 percent (90,000) are acutely malnourished (wasting) according to the National Nutrition Survey. These are the kinds of striking statistics one finds in places like Somalia.

The UN’s Isaczai asserts, “Humanitarian needs must be kept separate from political issues to be able to ensure minimum living conditions for the most vulnerable, especially women, children and the elderly.”

UN specialized agencies like the World Food Program (WFP) and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) are among lead agencies operating in North Korea.

WFP plans to feed over 1.8 million children and pregnant women in the coming year.  Much of the actual aid comes from South Korea, Japan and the USA.

Back in the late 1990’s floods and famine triggered a massive humanitarian emergency which killed at least a million people. Since that time North Korea’s monumentally inefficient socialist collective farms have fallen short each year, thus creating a food crisis which cynically shadows each growing season. At the same time the regime-run public distribution system is ideologically driven and has over forty categories of rations for the citizens. The official goal of the public distribution system is 573 grams of food per person daily. In fact the number is closer to 383 grams daily.

The challenges are steep; seven million people have no access to clean drinking water. For example only 56 percent of schools, 54 percent of health facilities and 38 percent of nurseries have piped running water.

Yet there has been a quiet tug of war between humanitarian agencies wishing to distribute food and medicine up against a paranoid and secretive regime who attempts to control all the distribution and especially access in remote parts of the DPRK.   “Over the last couple of years, the Government has more openly recognized needs in the country and indicated an interest in working closely with the international community in addressing those needs, “ the report confirms.

“The scale of needs in the DPR Korea continues to be of grave concern to the international humanitarian community,” the UN Report concedes.

Yet in sickening juxtaposition to the enduring food shortages, supreme leader Kim Jung un and the regime’s leadership lives in relative splendor.

Back in the 1970’s Mainland China’s agriculture was still locked into a similar socialist cookie mold and food shortages were endemic. Deng Xiaoping’s far-reaching agricultural reforms allowed China a private farm sector which soon blossomed and became a foundation of the overall modernization process. Today the DPRK resembles Mao’s China in many ways, right down to the cult like adoration of the Kim family leadership.

Despite much prodding from Beijing, Pyongyang’s rulers refuse to allow a “Chinese model” which may possibly revive the moribund Marxist economy.

Indeed the grim statistics from the DPRK “socialist paradise” equally pose a wider question, especially for neighboring and prosperous South Korea. How much longer can this land on life support from international assistance stay afloat? And what would be the consequences of its collapse?


John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).

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