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Half of North’s people went hungry, says UN

July 17,2019
Nearly half of North Korea’s population were undernourished from 2016 to 2018, according to the newest report by the United Nations’ (UN) food agencies on Monday.

According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, an annual report jointly prepared by five UN or UN-affiliated agencies, 12.2 million North Koreans - 47.8 percent of the country’s population - went hungry between 2016 and 2018.

This is a major increase from the UN’s earlier statistics from over a decade ago from 2004 to 2006 which said 35.4 percent of North Koreans - 8.4 million - were regularly deprived of proper sustenance. From 2015 to 2017, the number was 43.4 percent, or around 11.1 million people.

This year’s report from the agencies, which include the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Food Programme (WFP), World Health Organization (WHO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and Unicef, said North Korea had the world’s fourth-highest prevalence of undernourishment after the Central African Republic, Zimbabwe and Haiti.

South Korea, by contrast, had almost negligible levels of undernourishment, with less than 2.5 percent of its population believed to be exposed to hunger.

Prolonged hunger and inadequate nutrition may have affected North Korean children’s growth, as suggested by the report. While down from 27.9 percent from 2012, 19.1 percent of all children under the age of five showed signs of stunting.

Many other statistics, such as the absolute number of “severely food insecure people” - defined as those with insufficient dietary energy consumption and experiencing hunger on a regular basis - in the country were unavailable altogether.

The annual report follows an assessment published by the FAO and WFP in May that said food crop production in the North last year was at its lowest level since 2008, leaving rations cut for 10.1 million people who are in “urgent need of food assistance.” The assessment was made by the two organizations from two on-site visits to the North in November and April, following Pyongyang’s voluntary request for humanitarian aid.

In a show of goodwill that came amid a lull in cross-border exchanges, South Korea last month donated $8 million to the WFP and Unicef to fund food assistance programs for the North, followed up by a donation of 50,000 metric tons (55,115 tons) of domestically-grown rice.

Such help, however, may only scratch the surface of an exacerbating food shortage in the North. According to Geoglam, a Switzerland-based crop monitoring organization, harvests of wheat and barley in the country are expected to drop around 20 percent this year, leaving it with an even worse harvest than last year, which was the worst in a decade.

In a report published earlier this month, Geoglam said that water availability in the North was reported at less than half of last year’s levels and that a lack of rainfall throughout July to September may make things even worse.

An FAO report from July 4 also had expectations of lower crop yields this year due to drought, an alarming development given that the North would need to import 1.59 million tons of food to make up for the deficit.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]