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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 October 2006, 13:48 GMT 14:48 UK
Food crisis looms in North Korea

By Penny Spiller
BBC News

Millions of North Koreans are at risk of starvation this winter as humanitarian aid levels drop amid an international furore over the country's nuclear bomb test.

North Korean soldiers load up goods in the city of Sinjuiju opposite the Chinese border of Dandong on 21 October 2006
North Korea is not able to produce enough food to feed its people

Aid agencies say much of the population is already surviving on basic rations and fear any further drop in food supplies could lead to a repeat of the 1990s famine that killed as many as two million people.

While sanctions imposed by the UN following North Korea's nuclear test on 9 October specifically exclude humanitarian aid, observers fear they will have an impact regardless.

South Korea - one of North Korea's main food suppliers - suspended its shipments after Pyongyang's missile tests in July.

Food from China, another key supplier, is believed to have dropped by a third in the past year.

We cannot allow ourselves to be complicit in the potential starvation of millions of innocent people
Sophie Richardson
Human Rights Watch

The World Food Programme (WFP) - which has been allowed only limited access to the country's most vulnerable people in the last year - warns it has enough food to last until January.

North Korea expert Hazel Smith believes the country's own stocks will not last long into the new year.

With the annual harvest now under way, Pyongyang will soon have a better idea of the food shortfall the country faces this winter, Paul Risley of the WFP in Asia says.

"The government will have to make some critical decisions fairly soon to ensure an adequate amount of food continues to come into the country to cover the winter months," he adds.


North Korea is estimated to need around five million metric tonnes of cereal, rice and wheat a year to feed its 23 million people.

Even with a good harvest, the country is only able to produce around 85% of the total domestically, and is estimated to rely on outside sources for an additional one million tonnes of food.

Children eating WFP-donated food in Hyangsan, North Korea, on 12 October 2006. Picture from WFP
North Korea needs an estimated 5m tonnes of food a year
It produced an estimated 3.8m tonnes after a good harvest in 2005
Average urban dweller's daily intake is 250g cereal from government plus 30g maize bought from own funds
Recommended amount is 550-590g of blend of foods, equivalent to 2,100kcal
North Koreans may also forage for mushrooms, edible grasses, acorns etc

At the start of the year, South Korea pledged 500,000 tonnes of food, which Mr Risley says was essentially a large enough gift to make up the North's own shortfall.

But Seoul has suspended shipments of at least some of the food, and not yet indicated whether it intends to restart them.

Meanwhile, North Korea's own supplies suffered a serious blow when an estimated 100,000 tonnes worth of crops were washed away by flooding in July.

North Korea's food crisis is one of the world's forgotten problems, with attention deflected by the focus on its nuclear programme, says Hazel Smith, a professor of international relations at Warwick University.

She has visited North Korea with the World Food Programme and Unicef in the past.

"All families will know someone who has died of malnutrition," she says.

A survey in 2004 found that nearly 40% of North Korean children under the age of six showed signs of severe or chronic malnutrition (the latter a sign they have not had enough food since birth).

More than 30% of young mothers were also malnourished, the survey found.

Ms Smith says many North Koreans have been existing at survival level for 15 years and are in real danger if food levels drop.

"We are talking a matter of months before there is immediate starvation," she said.

The WFP now operates in 13 counties in North Korea, feeding around half of the 1.9 million people it has identified as being in need of food aid.

But the organisation predicts that number could quickly rise to six million this winter.

North Koreans, particularly in the cities and towns, are almost entirely dependent on the state for food distribution.

And, if supplies are limited, the government will feed its military and high-ranking officials before the most needy, observers say.


Even before the current political crisis, countries were reluctant to donate to North Korea - particularly after Pyongyang imposed restrictions on the work of the WFP last December.

"Donors were very concerned about the restrictions," Mr Risley said.

WFP appealed for $102m in 2005
Russian Federations: $5m
Cuba: $864,000
Australia: $763,000
Ireland: $320,000
Multilateral funds: $1.2m
South Korea: Pledged 500,000 tonnes of food in 2006
Source: WFP

"The authorities have made it very difficult for us to monitor the distribution of food, and ensure it reaches the people who need it most and isn't diverted to the army or selected industries."

The WFP appealed for $102m (55m) of aid for North Korea last year - and has so far received just 10% of it.

Human Rights Watch says the international community is in danger of punishing the people of North Korea for the behaviour of their government.

"North Korea is so closed that there are very few tools left with which to punish the country. Don't let it be humanitarian aid," says Sophie Richardson, deputy director of HRW's Asia division.

"We cannot allow ourselves to be complicit in the potential starvation of millions of innocent people."

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