Earlier this week the World Food Program released a quarterly report on its Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO) in North Korea. It documents the WFP’s inability to fulfill its targets in North Korea due to tepid donor support. Children at nurseries received half rations while pregnant and breastfeeding women received only 33 percent of the targeted distribution levels.
Reading between the lines, the paper reports continuing chronic nutritional problems in North Korea despite the increasing availability of food. The most recent FAO-WFP review puts the grain gap at 40,000 metric tons—the lowest level since the UN agencies got involved with North Korea in the 1990s, a deficit that could be closed for less than $20 million. This is not a large figure, especially in light of North Korea’s growing international trade and the consensus of a slowly and unevenly improving economy. Yet the PRRO report indicates that “only 88 percent of primary school children received WFP food assistance” in December 2013. You don’t have to work for Fox News to wonder why, if food availability is the best in decades, that the WFP is apparently targeting all the children in the country.
The report also indicates that 18 percent of the children under 5 years of age admitted to 119 surveyed hospitals were acutely malnourished. The report rightly observed that this is not a representative sample, and does not imply that 18 percent of all children in North Korea are acutely malnourished.
Nevertheless, acute malnourishment on this scale, in the context of increased overall food availability, underlines the point that the food insecurity in North Korea is increasingly tied to unequal distribution and lack of prioritization, problems that reach all the way back to the famine period, but are even more acutely evident today. The rising tide is not lifting all boats.
At the same time, two decades of reliance on aid and provocative behavior has eroded support in the donor community for programs in North Korea, as the WFP’s inability to secure support for its programs demonstrates.
Malnutrition in North Korea is real. Make no doubt about it. But the problem is intimately related to the increasing inequality of North Korean society, and the revealed lack of interest of the North Korean government in resolving it.