A U.N. food agency on Friday released grim footage of what it described as severely malnourished North Korean children in the country hit by recent flooding.
The Rome-based World Food Program said it shot video at the Haeju Pediatric Hospital in the country's western South Hwanghae province in mid-August. It shows health care workers pulling on the mottled, loose skin of a wailing child's belly, and an image of an infant on an intravenous drip.
Heavy rain and tropical storms have pounded the country in the past few months, leaving dozens of people dead or missing, displacing thousands of others and exacerbating chronic food shortages in rural areas.
One-third of all children younger than 5 were already malnourished in the chronically hungry country, and "it is clear that many more are at risk of slipping into acute stages of malnutrition in the coming weeks and months if assistance is not provided urgently," the organization said.
International donors have been wary of providing assistance to Pyongyang because its political pariah status for its nuclear defiance and the possibility that funds could be diverted to the communist party elite and military.
The U.N. agency said Friday that only 30 percent of its $210 million emergency costs have been funded, so it is giving priority to children, and to pregnant and breast-feeding women. The U.N. agency has been able to reach "under half the 3.5 million people we are aiming to feed," the agency said.
It said earlier this year that an estimated 6 million of North Korea's 24 million people would go hungry without help from outside donors due to the impact on the harvest.
In footage from Haeju Orphanage, a group of 7-year-olds, none of them smiling and many with eyes downcast, sit on the floor in an undecorated corner of a room near a dilapidated cupboard. Few show any curiosity about their visitors, and almost all wear baggy gray T-shirts and shorts, with skinny arms and legs protruding.
In another image, WFP staff members wrap a tape measure around the upper arm of a moderately malnourished 18-month-year-old to monitor the baby's health.
Marcus Prior, a WFP spokesman based in Bangkok, said much of the world's attention on hunger has been focused elsewhere. "Clearly the priority globally is the Horn of Africa," he said.
In North Korea, "what we're dealing with ...is a chronic situation that is particularly bad this year," Prior said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press in Rome.
"We're not dealing with a situation where people are dying from hunger," Prior said. "We're dealing with a nutrition crisis in young children" who then become more vulnerable to disease.
The North Korean regime, which on Friday put on a massive military parade Friday to mark the 63rd anniversary of the country's founding, has reportedly reduced cereal rations to 200 grams per day per person, the WFP said.
Many North Koreans "have some ways of filling in the edges" on their food supplies, Prior said. "Many have vegetable gardens or relatives who live on farms or search the mountains" for wild plant roots and shoots, he said. But the delicate digestive systems of babies and young children often cannot handle such food.
Local factories producing specially nutritious biscuits closed down in August because they lacked key ingredients, the WFP said.
WFP said farmland damage doesn't seem to be too widespread, but stressed that it was too early to tell the full impact on food production. In the video, one farmer leaning over to yank out rice plants comments: "It's rotted, so we can't hope" to harvest this rice.
Prior said aid workers will have a better picture of the situation toward the end of the month, when the main harvest, mostly rice and maize, starts coming in.
North Korea perennially suffers food shortages. Heavy rain can be catastrophic due to poor drainage, deforestation and dilapidated infrastructure.
Associated Press writer Kelly Olsen in Seoul contributed to this report.