“Millions of vulnerable North Koreans are at risk of slipping toward precarious hunger levels,” Jean-Pierre de Margerie, WFP country director for North Korea, told a news conference in Beijing.
De Margerie said a food security assessment conducted last month showed that parts of the country could fall into a humanitarian emergency before autumn. The crisis is especially severe in the northeast.
“What is critical for us right now is to be able to address the immediate needs, the needs of average Koreans between now and the end of the lean season,” de Margerie said. “This is the period when people are hurting.”
He called on international donors to contribute to the $20 million needed to enable the WFP to expand its food distribution to reach 6.4 million of the country’s roughly 23 million people.
North Korea has relied on outside aid to help feed its 23 million people since the mid-1990s when natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy. An estimated 2 million people died of hunger at the time.
Flooding last year, higher oil and commodity prices and a decline in shipments of aid from other countries are all adding to the shortfalls, de Margerie said.
The price of rice has risen nearly three times over the last year, while the price of maize has tripled or even quadrupled, he said, adding that the standard government ration in cities had been cut drastically.
The WFP’s food security survey, the first since 2004, interviewed over 250 households in 53 counties across eight provinces. It found that more than half of North Korean households had cut the number of meals they eat each day from three to two, and close to three-fourths had reduced their food intake.
Many people are resorting to scavenging for wild fruits and vegetables, including seaweed, grass and roots, contributing to an apparent rise in malnutrition, de Margerie said.
The United States has pledged 500,000 tons of food to North Korea, 400,000 tons of which will be through the WFP and the rest of which will be distributed by U.S. non-governmental organizations.
The first shipment was received late last month and a second was expected to arrive in the coming weeks, de Margerie said.
“People are starting to exhaust their coping mechanisms,” he said. “That’s why it’s critical for us to mobilize food right now.”