In an earlier post, my colleague Marc Noland provided an overview of the 2012 UNICEF nutritional survey, replete with all of the necessary caveats on coverage and representativeness of the sample. With the regime so clearly prioritizing the military, it is worth reminding ourselves—yet again—of the human costs of bluster.
In the first figure below, we track two key measures of child nutrition: the share of children below the age of six showing stunting (height-for-age, and reflecting long-run nutritional disadvantages) and underweight (weight-for-age, and typically taken as a measure of short-run caloric deficiencies). Obviously, the populations overlap. The good news is that there is a continued downward trend in both measures. But the trend is very gradual and still leaves nearly 30 percent of children in the country stunted; 7.2 percent of the overall sample registered as severely stunted.
Moreover, these improvements are somewhat deceptive because as Noland observed, the incidence of stunting accumulates through the successive age cohorts until reaching a peak of roughly 10 percent at age 2. At this age, stunting is irreversible and confers a lifelong set of physical and mental challenges.
The table looks at the provincial picture over time, and underscores a point made in another Noland post about the incredible inequalities across the country, in this case regional inequalities. Although both stunting and overweight have come down over time across provinces, it is revealing to look at the ratio of both measures in the worst-off and best-off areas. The most severely affected province is Yanggang; Pyongyang by contrast is relatively privileged. In 2002, the Yanggang/Pyongyang ratio was 1.79 for underweight and 1.73 for stunting. In 2012, it was 2 for underweight and 2.02 for stunting. In short inequality between the best and worst performing parts of the country has actually gone up. Moreover, Pyongyang is hardly immune. Even the capital city shows 20 percent of the cohort as stunted, and fully 10 percent as underweight. Strong and prosperous nation indeed.