- Associated Press - Thursday, October 20, 2011

WONSAN, NORTH KOREA | Scythe in hand, a woman slices through a bright green field of rice. Oxen plod down country roads pulling carts piled high with harvested stalks of grain.

This autumn, as farmers fan out into fields of corn, wheat, rice and cabbage, such evocative pastoral scenes - the stuff of centuries-old Dutch landscape paintings - also are a reminder of the challenges North Korea faces in feeding its people.

Primitive farming techniques, a lack of arable land in a rugged, mountainous country and the suspected diversion of food to military and ruling party elites have all contributed to widespread hunger in the country’s poorest areas, aid groups say.

This year, summer floods, soaring global food prices and the continued reluctance of the U.S. and its allies to provide aid to a hostile and nuclear-armed country means millions of children and pregnant women are slowly starving, the groups say.

So this autumn harvest is being watched particularly closely, and already there are concerns that it won’t be nearly enough to feed a nation that has struggled with food shortages for more than 15 years.

North Korea faces a “potentially catastrophic food situation,” five charities warned the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development in a Sept. 26 letter obtained by the Associated Press, “with clear indications of acute malnutrition and slow starvation - especially in children.”

And a far greater crisis may unfold in six to nine months when stocks run low, said Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Christian Friends of Korea and Global Resource Services after visiting three hard-hit provinces last month.

This week, the top U.N. official for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, is visiting hospitals, schools, orphanages, farms and a food distribution center near the industrial city of Hamhung, northeast of the capital, Pyongyang.

“I’m particularly concerned over the reports that there’s increasing malnutrition among children,” Ms. Amos told AP in Pyongyang.

In the countryside near Wonsan, south of Hamhung, rice plants lie stacked in piles, corncobs dry on the tiles of traditional farm cottages. A woman cradles bundles of Napa cabbage, which will be used to make kimchi, the spicy staple of the Koreas.

But pull back the husks and you find the corn is stunted, the kernels shriveled. The potatoes are tiny, the greens meager - the result of the floods that engulfed the region’s southern breadbasket.

“You may see a whole field of green rice plants swaying in the breeze - which we saw a lot of - but the rains knocked down a lot of the pollination needed at critical times,” said Jim White of Mercy Corps. “The rice never properly matured.”

It’s a humanitarian crisis that threatens to physically and intellectually stunt entire generations of North Koreans subsisting, at times, on just one potato or a fistful of cornmeal a day, aid workers say.

Already, a third of North Korean children younger than 5 are chronically malnourished or stunted, according to the World Food Program.

“The child’s brain needs protein,” said Mr. White, who was part of the September group that traveled North Korea. “They need fat. They can’t just grow on starches.”

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