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Aid Groups: Children in North Korea at Risk for Starvation this Winter

Malnourished children line the floor of a pediatric ward of Rinsan County Hospital in flood-affected North Hwanghae province in North Korea. Photo courtesy visiting U.S. NGOs.

North Korea is approaching another severe food crisis, according to international relief groups who are calling on the U.S. and other governments to join South Korea in increasing aid to the reclusive communist nation.

Floods and a brutal winter have cut into crop production and — combined with rising global food prices — have created severe food shortages throughout the country. Aid groups are increasingly concerned about the health effects on North Koreans, especially the country’s children.

“North Korea is approaching a catastrophic situation for vulnerable populations including children, the elderly, and pregnant women,” according to David Austin, North Korea Program Director for Mercy Corps, an international aid organization based in Portland, Ore.

North Korea has experienced food shortages for decades. In what was considered to be one of the worst famines of the 20th century, an estimated million people starved to death in the 1990s, though official figures are unavailable and some counts put the toll much higher. Austin said that the current situation, while not as dire yet, is extremely urgent. “When you add these shocks — the floods and an especially cold winter — to an existing weakened system, the population is going to get hit much harder,” said Austin. “That’s why this year is worse than previous years.”

About 60 percent of North Korea’s 24.5 million people rely on government food rations, which consist mostly of dried corn and rice. Earlier his year, rations were reduced to 200 grams or less per person per day, which is only a third of the minimum daily energy requirement set by the World Health Organization.

During a trip to North Korea earlier this year, Austin and his Mercy Corps colleagues witnessed people going to extreme measures to find food. “A lot of people we met were foraging for wild grasses, tree bark, roots, and leaves that they would then chop up and mix with their corn or rice to make it last longer,” said Austin.

In a new joint report, two U.N. agencies said North Korea will have an “uncovered food deficit” of over 400,000 tons this year. The report by the World Food Program and the Food and Agricultural Organization noted that health officials who were interviewed in North Korea “reported a 50 to 100 percent increase in the admissions of malnourished children into pediatric wards compared to last year, a sharp rise in low-birth weight, a sharp rise in low-birth weight, and the mission team observed several cases of oedema.”

On Monday, South Korea announced it would send $5.7 in new aid to North Korea through UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency. South Korea halted aid last year after it blamed North Korea for the deaths of 46 sailors in the sinking of a South Korean navy ship.

UNICEF representative Bijaya Rajbhandari spoke with the NewsHour from Pyongyang and called the pledge “very welcome support from the Republic of Korea.”

“The money will help immensely with immunizations, essential medicines, and our therapeutic feeding programs,” Rajbhandari said.

In October, UNICEF began to survey children in 25 out of 208 North Korean counties to identify those who were most at risk for being malnourished, according to Rajbhandari. The agency is now distributing ready-to-use therapeutic food — a highly nutritious peanut-based product — to kids who are well enough to remain at home. For children who are severely malnourished and need to be hospitalized, UNICEF is providing a fortified milk powder called F100. Rajbhandari says the agency has treated 4,960 children under the age of 5 so far.

“The biggest health challenge for children in North Korea is nutrition,” said Mercy Corps’ Austin. “30 percent of children are so chronically malnourished that they are stunted. When they are stunted physically, they are also stunted developmentally. They can never recover.” On average, North Koreans are six inches shorter than South Koreans.

UNICEF’s Rajbhandari said children who are chronically malnourished are also more susceptible to variety of diseases. “There are other health challenges such as diarrheal diseases, pneumonia, and neonatal deaths,” said Rajbhandari. “Diarrheal diseases are caused by dirty water and hygiene practices, so that’s one area where UNICEF is working closely with the North Korean government to ensure there is clean water and proper sanitation.”

New mothers and their babies are also being impacted. When Austin got a rare glimpse of a North Korean maternity ward earlier this year, he was quite concerned by what he saw. “There were three moms and three newborn babies. All the babies had been full term and they were all under four pounds which means the moms didn’t get enough nutrition when they were pregnant,” he said.

The United States is currently considering whether to send aid to North Korea after increasingly urgent calls for assistance by Mercy Corps and other relief organizations. Since 1996, the U.S. government has provided North Korea with roughly $800 million in food aid, but the program was stopped two years ago when Pyongyang suspended the World Food Program’s work over a monitoring dispute. Over the summer, the United States sent an emergency relief shipment totaling $900,000 to North Korea following severe floods, but since then government officials have expressed concerns about food aid landing in the hands of the country’s elite, and not those who need it most.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Rajiv Shah, the head of the United States Agency for International Development said, “Our goal is to identify and complete an assessment of whether food aid assistance can effectively be provided in a manner that is transparent and targeted and reaches intended beneficiaries and avoids the risk of graft and misappropriation.”

Photo above: this acutely malnourished child in critical condition was being treated in the pediatric ward of Kumchon County Hospital in North Hwanghae, North Korea.The mouth sores are a result of malnutrition. Photo courtesy visiting U.S. NGOs..

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