DPRK: More than 6 million people need food assistance

21 October, 2011
A mother and child in the WFP, WHO, UNICEF-supported Provincial Pediatric Hospital in Hamhung City, DPRK. Credit: OCHA/David Ohana
A mother and child in the WFP, WHO, UNICEF-supported Provincial Pediatric Hospital in Hamhung City, DPRK. Credit: OCHA/David Ohana

More than 6 million people urgently need food assistance in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos has warned, after a landmark five-day visit to the crisis-hit country.

“Recent figures for children under five years of age show chronic malnutrition levels at 33 per cent nation-wide, and 45 per cent in the north of the country,” she said in a statement at the end of her mission.

“One nurse that I met at the pediatric hospital in Hamhung told me that the number of malnourished children coming to her hospital had increased 1.5 times only since last year.”

Rations provided via the country’s Public Distribution System fell from 400 grams per person per day in March 2011 to around 200 grams per person per day in July, and have stayed around that level since then, further deepening the hardship experienced by ordinary people in the DPRK.  

People are having to survive on maize, rice if they are lucky, and cabbage, leading to the high levels of malnutrition, particularly among children.  

During her visit, Ms Amos met with DPRK government officials, UN agencies, NGOs, donors, and members of the diplomatic community in Pyongyang, and spent two days on a field visit to South Hamgyong and Kangwon provinces to see some of the challenges on the ground.

During a series of visits to hospitals, an orphanage, a communal farm and a local market, she spoke with health workers, mothers, local officials, aid officials, and visited a family being assisted by World Food Programme. Ms Amos also visited a public distribution centre, a biscuit factory, and a medical warehouse.

“People in the DPRK suffer from a complex set of challenges including chronic poverty and under-development - structural causes with humanitarian implications,” said Ms Amos.  

“When the Public Distribution System cannot provide enough food, there are few ways for vulnerable people to cope beyond the now very limited international assistance that is being provided.”

Ms Amos said she was granted access to all the places that she had asked to see, including a surprisingly vibrant market and a public distribution centre in Wonsan - neither of which are usually freely accessible to humanitarian agencies in the country.

“Travelling around in the DPRK, one cannot help but notice that people – children and adults alike - are generally short and thin,” she said. “DPR Korea simply does not have enough arable land to produce all the food it needs. It’s clear that new solutions are needed if we are to see an end to this chronic, seemingly never-ending crisis.”

Ms Amos noted that “during site visits, I saw for myself the positive impact of the limited humanitarian assistance being provided by the UN and its partners. Allowing all humanitarian agencies, not just WFP, access to markets, random access to homes and institutions, 24 hour notice of monitoring visits and the employment of Korean-speakers on their staff should be the rule rather than the exception.”

Ms Amos said the most vulnerable people in North Korea were victims of a situation over which they had no control. “For this reason, we are not in a position to turn our backs on these people, despite the many difficulties.”

More>> ERC Amos' press statement

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