U.N. sees no respite in North Korea food crisis

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 21, 2011 6:08 PM
U.N. sees no respite in North Korea food crisis

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea can expect no respite from harvest shortfalls that have left a third of its children under five malnourished, the top U.N. humanitarian official said on Friday after visiting the isolated state and urging officials to open up so aid can flow.

Rising global commodities prices coupled with summer floods and typhoons have compounded the emergency this year, and the United Nations estimated in March that more than 6 million North Koreans urgently needed food aid.

But North Korea's requests for aid have gone mostly unanswered by an international community which suspects official hoarding. The current World Food Programme appeal for the country is only about 30 percent funded.

"The assessment seems to indicate that this year's harvest will be about the same or slightly better than last year. The point is that that's not enough," Valerie Amos, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, told reporters in Beijing after arriving from Pyongyang.

"The average annual food gap is around one million tonnes out of a total food requirement of 5.3 million tonnes," she said. "Recent figures for children under five years of age show chronic malnutrition levels, i.e. stunting, at 33 percent nationwide and 45 percent in the north of the country."

North Korea suffered a crippling famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated one million people and has seen chronic food shortages due to mismanaged farm policy, a string of natural disasters and sanctions imposed on its nuclear and missile programs.

Amos visited hospitals, orphanages and food distribution centers in the countryside. She met Kim Yong-nam, the nominal head of state.

"In my discussions with the government, I stressed the importance of sharing data and information in order to clearly show what the challenges are and to reassure donors that their money is being well spent," said Amos, who also said Kim took a conciliatory tone.

"He did talk about the desire of the DPRK in terms of their own view that they would like to become much more economically efficient, and the importance of peace and security on the Korean peninsula," said Amos.

The DPRK, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is North Korea's official name.

Critics accuse the North's authoritarian leadership of siphoning off aid to feed its million-strong army or stockpiling in the event of further, tightened sanctions.

Amos said she saw no evidence of hoarding. "I cannot sit here and say that there is absolutely no diversion, but I saw no evidence of it and I know that every effort is being made to ensure that that does not happen," she said.

Amos also pressed the case for faster action.

"Chronic malnutrition will have long-term implications for generations to come even if drastic action is taken today," she said. "Despite efforts made by the government to improve access to inputs such as fertilizer and quality seeds, the DPRK simply does not have enough arable land to produce all the food it needs."