- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

SEOUL — The people of North Korea are foraging in the mountains for roots as the country faces a return of the catastrophic famines of the 1990s, U.N. food-aid officials say.

While the world’s attention is fixated on the Stalinist country’s nuclear-weapons program, the main supplier of food aid to the impoverished nation is facing a funding shortfall, World Food Program (WFP) Executive Director James Morris said.

“My sense is we have a crisis in front of us,” Mr. Morris told reporters yesterday after he wrapped up two days of meetings with South Korean government officials.

He said a shortage of food has led to a cut in state-supplied rations while economic reforms have pushed food prices beyond the reach of many citizens.

In 2004, acute malnutrition — “wasting” — affected 7 percent of North Korean children, while 37 percent were chronically malnourished, Mr. Morris said. Among women, 35 percent were anemic and 32 percent malnourished. These figures are improvements from the late 1990s, he said, but the situation might worsen this year.

Mr. Morris said Pyongyang officials had admitted that their goal of a 3 percent increase in agricultural productivity this year looked unlikely.

“What you see is people walking up hills with sacks and coming down with grasses, nuts and roots,” said the WFP’s North Korea spokesman, Gerald Bourke, a frequent visitor to the nation. “They mix it with maize husks, to make a kind of porridge; it fills them up, but it does terrible things to their digestive systems.”

North Korea was devastated by famines in the late 1990s — a period known to North Koreans as the “arduous march” — that might have killed 10 percent of the population. Then, rural areas were hardest hit. Today, city dwellers are most at risk.

“On the northeast coast are these erstwhile industrial cities of derelict factories and unemployed and underemployed people,” Mr. Bourke said. “In the countryside, people can raise animals and plants. People in the cities can’t do that — they are squeezed in all kinds of directions.”

Despite Pyongyang’s strident rhetoric of “juche” or self-reliance, about 6.5 million of its 23 million citizens rely on the WFP for vital sustenance.

However, the political environment surrounding North Korea — and ongoing humanitarian crises in southern Africa, Sudan, the Horn of Africa and tsunami-hit Asia — have diverted attention and funds from the WFP’s North Korean efforts. The agency this year faces a food shortfall of 140,000 tons.

Only $24 is needed to feed a North Korean child for a year, Mr. Morris said, but noted that the contributions from developed nations has been sliding. The United States is providing the North Korean program with 50,000 tons of food — less than in previous years — and Japan, which last year supplied 125,000 tons, has made no commitment this year.

Of major donors, only the European Union has increased aid. South Korea has pledged to deliver 500,000 tons of rice to the North directly.

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