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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

North Korea Nutritional Update

by | August 21st, 2013 | 06:25 am
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Yonhap recently ran a story on food security in North Korea with the lead “Eight out of 10 North Korean people are suffering from food shortages this year, with nearly 20 percent of children younger than five severely malnourished, a report by the U.N. food body has said.” So I dutifully sent my assistant off to track down the report.  He came back with it, I printed it out and tossed it onto a pile of other material to be read when I completed another task.

When I started to read the report, I noticed that the figures did not line up precisely with the Yonhap story.  On closer examination I noticed that the report was not from this month, but from 2011.

So I went back to the WFP website and managed to locate the correct report.

But herein lies the lesson: except for some slight variations in the figures, the two reports are virtually identical: according to the WFP, little has changed. It is unclear whether this finding reflects reality in North Korea or WFP methodology.

The WFP reports are based on small, highly non-random samples, typically on the order of 100-150 households which are already receiving aid.  The reports also summarize WFP visits to institutions such as schools. Reading between the lines, the organization is granted access to these households and institutions precisely because they are receiving aid—these are monitoring visits—not general surveys of the population. The North Koreans grant the organization access as a quid pro quo for assistance. So, yes, it is good that the WFP is allowed to monitor, but it is inappropriate to generalize these results to the whole population.  Indeed, some earlier WFP reports provided implicit evidence that as one might expect, these households and institutions are non-representative.

So with that caveat, what does the report find? The WFP found that 17 percent of the children under five years old who were admitted to the hospitals that WFP visited “suffered from acute malnutrition; a finding suggesting around the same levels of malnutrition compared to the past 12 months. The found prevalence is only for sick children and not representative of the general population [emphasis added].”   So they find that the situation is disturbing and largely unchanged, and in fairness to the WFP, they explicitly acknowledge that this is not a general finding, something that Yonhap missed or chose to ignore.

WFP household food consumption

The report continues “the main finding in food consumption is that since April 2012, at least 75 percent of the households fall in the borderline and poor consumption categories; shifting between the categories during the year. The figure above taken from the report indicates the main concerns in food consumption taking place just before the main harvest and during the harsh winter months. The current consumption (last column on the right) shows improvement from the first quarter of 2013 and is considerably better than the situation a year ago (first column on the left), especially looking at the shift from poor to borderline consumption. The slight increase of households consuming some protein in a week and modestly increased oil consumption are the likely reasons for this improvement. However, the situation remains fragile and considerable improvement in the percentage of households with acceptable consumption can only be found if consumption frequency of protein sources increases.” Unlike the hospital intake data, the more general food consumption data show some improvement, though the situation remains “fragile.”

So the basic situation remains more or less unchanged: on the back of buoyant world commodity prices and trade with China, the North Korean economy is doing ok. Not great, but ok.  The distribution of this income appears to be increasingly equal, however, with some segment of the population in a state of chronic food insecurity.