Famine in North Korea

North Korea Map (Thomas Roche/Flickr)

What are some of the major causes of the famine in North Korea?

The famine in DPRK is the result of the cumulative effects of a fractured economic infrastructure and inadequate food production. Over 22 million people must rely on food produced from the barely 20 per cent of arable land available. This has led, with unfortunate consequences, to planting crops on steep hillsides, destroying the forest cover and causing erosion. While the yield from planting on hillslopes is not great, the effects have been detrimental. Partly related, a cycle of floods (and drought) began in 1995 that led to the current famine-like situation in the country. Further, the country has not been able to earn sufficient foreign exchange to allow it to purchase substantial amounts of food abroad.

It is estimated by the DPRK government that over 40 per cent of children under five are malnourished. A high proportion of pregnant women are also malnourished. Deteriorating social services, along with inadequate food distributions through the government public distribution system have led to the current crisis in the DPRK.

Recent news reports warn that North Korea will run out of food in three months unless more international donations arrive immediately. How are you altering your programs in light of this and are governments responding to the urgency of this issue?

The emergency operation remains heavily under-resourced despite a very recent contribution from the US of 100,000 metric tonnes (mt) of food aid. The current shortfall for the calendar year now totals about 150,000 metric tonnes. The main shortfalls are in cereals (140,000 mt) and Corn Soya Blend (CSB), which is an enriched blended food mainly targeted for nursery- school children.

Owing to the food pipeline problems, WFP had to scale back its operations starting in May when we stopped distributing food to 675,000 secondary school children and were unable to begin the planned lean season distributions to 350,000 elderly people and 144,000 caregivers in child institutions and pediatric hospitals/wards. This measure has enabled us to give priority to our core beneficiary groups (i.e. orphans, young children and pregnant and nursing women), allowing distributions to them to extend farther into the third quarter.

With the US 100,000 tonnes, the situation has been alleviated, though not solved. The dilemma faced is that, despite this contribution, it may be difficult to resume distributing food to the beneficiary groups that have been omitted unless we are reasonably certain we will have enough food for the most vulnerable core beneficiaries through to the end of the year.

Who are the countries that are giving the most aid right now? Why are donors providing less aid this year than they have in previous years?

The donor base for food aid has been diverse in the past few years, with the major contributors being the US, Japan, Republic of Korea (in that order). The EU, Italy, Germany, Australia, Canada, Sweden and Finland have also contributed, though lesser amounts. Also the ROK has given a lot bilaterally (i.e., directly to the DPRK government and not through WFP) while China is also known to have made major contributions bilaterally.

For 2002, the US has contributed about 200,000 mt and the ROK 100,000 mt of food aid (thru WFP), while Germany, Finland, Cuba and Australia have donated smaller amounts in cash and food. In 2001 the US contribution was close to 300,000 tonnes, while ROK contributed 100,000 tonnes thru WFP. Japan was the largest donor thru WFP in 2001 with 500,000 tonnes of rice. Thus far it has not contributed in 2002.

There have been reports that the North Korean government continually diverts food aid from those who are hungry to the military or the party elite. In your experience, do you feel this is the case? If so, what are ways of preventing this? If not, how do you confirm that food aid is being distributed evenly?

Regarding possible food diversion by the North Korean authorities to the military, the authorities here have made their position clear -- the army is given what it requires from the national harvest, up front and in full. And it takes it in the form of food Koreans prefer: Korean rice. The food that WFP typically provides is overwhelmingly maize or wheat (or, in 2001, Japanese "brown rice"), commodities not necessarily preferred by Koreans. We have no evidence that substantial amounts of food are diverted to the army. Furthermore, we have been doing 350 to 400 monitoring visits per month in the 80 per cent, or so, of the country that we can access, and have seen no evidence that WFP-supplied food is being given to the military.

How do you monitor areas that are in most need? Are you allowed access to all areas or do you have to work with North Korean officials in determining where you can send teams?

WFP has its main office in Pyongyang and five sub-offices located throughout the country. We have some 50 international staff who together make between 350-400 monitoring visits every month of the year. They visit all of the types of institutions through which WFP food is distributed -- orphanages, nurseries, kindergartens, pediatric hospitals and schools, both primary and secondary. They also visit pregnant women and nursing mothers at home, as they do the elderly. They visit Food-for-Work (FFW)sites. And always they speak with those who are receiving the food.

We are not satisfied because we do not yet have access to all of the counties to assess needs and to provide food to those who need it. Our "no access, no food" policy means, we think, that many people in genuine need of food assistance are not reached. We are not satisfied because we are not able to make random spot checks. This diminishes the effectiveness of any set of monitoring arrangements.

WFP has access for monitoring food distributions in 163 of the 206 counties/districts in the DPRK. The weekly monitoring travel plan is put together by WFP and cleared by the government. Sometimes there are cancellations to certain counties or FFW project sites, but WFP rigorously enforces the policy of "no access, no food". This means that food distributions to such counties will be suspended in case monitoring visits are cancelled three times successively.

North Korean and international reports often differ on the number of famine-related deaths per year. Can you give me a rough estimate of what WFP thinks is the number of famine-related deaths per year? Is it increasing dramatically?

There is no reliable information on this. The range of estimates varies greatly.

Has Bush's "axis of evil" speech affected the humanitarian effort? Is North Korea likely to receive even less humanitarian aid as a result?

There appears to be no direct affect of the "axis of evil" speech and the US approach to humanitarian aid to the DPRK. The US has always made it clear that it separates the question of humanitarian needs from political issues. Furthermore, the US is again the largest contributor through WFP to this country in 2002 and recently announced a further major contribution of food.

Interview conducted by Cindy Yoon of Asia Society.