In both 1995 and 1996, floods destroyed about 50% of the country’s harvest. In addition, environmental degradation related to deforestation increased the severity of damage caused by heavy rainfall through silting and loss of topsoil. In 1997, a drought followed by typhoons and a tidal wave caused one of the worst crops in years. The situation was exacerbated by the loss of North Korea's long-time trading partners with the breakup of the Soviet bloc. The increasing isolation of North Korea in the post-Cold War era has left the country short of the foreign capital necessary to buy food to make up its production shortfalls. In late 1999 the United Nations reported that while the crisis peaked between 1995 and 1997, it is by no means over. 1998 and 1999 yielded better harvests, but significant improvements in North Korean agricultural practices will be necessary, at the very least, for the country to become self-sufficient in grain. In addition to the lack of food, North Korea also suffers from energy and fuel shortages as well as drastic shortages of medicine and medical supplies. The combination of these factors leads to the long-term damage to the health of the undernourished population.

Famine Statistics
(from 1998) The World Food Program has estimated that North Korea has been short one million tons of food for each of the past two years, and a food assessment team that visited North Korea last October estimated that the corn crop was only 50% of what would be expected under favorable weather conditions. As of January 1, the country's food reserves stood at only 167,000 tons, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned last month that stocks of food would run out in late April or early May. The FAO estimated that North Korea will need to import at least 1.5 million tons of grain before the next harvest.

The daily food rations for North Koreans on the public distribution system now stand at 350 calories. In contrast, the average daily food intake in the USA is 2500 calories. The World Food Program's representative in Pyongyang reported that the daily food ration in North Korea was slashed recently from a range of between15.75 to 17.5 ounces a day--the "minimum needed" for an adult--to between 7 and 10.5 ounces a day.

Out of a population of 23.2 million, including about 2.6 million children under 6 years old, at least 20% are reported to be suffering from malnutrition. The Korean Buddhist Sharing Movement, based on a survey of 472 refugees along the North Korea - China border, estimates that 3 million people have died of starvation and disease since August 1995, a 29 percent death rate. The heaviest death rates are among children between 0-6 years old at 45 percent and elderly people above 60 at 74 percent. They also maintain that approximately 2 million tons of aid will be necessary this year to sustain the country’s population. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has said that the situation in hospitals is critical, as increased incidences of diseases caused by malnutrition are exacerbated by the lack of medicines in hospitals.

Why so little aid?
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) issued the largest appeal in its history in January 1998, for $378 million in food and material aid to over 7 million people in North Korea. WFP Executive-Director Catherine Bertini announced on April 24 that only three countries--the US, the Czech Republic, and Canada--have responded. The total aid pledged thus far amounts to less than one-third of the 658,000 tons needed. Bertini warned, "If we fail, the country will face a true humanitarian catastrophe."

North Korea's status as an "international pariah" and "rogue state" have undoubtedly contributed to the reluctance on the part of the international community to respond to its plight. Japan discontinued aid shipments in late 1998 after North Korea test-fired a rocket which passed over Japanese territory, but announced plans to resume aid donations in March 2000. The North Korean government's tight control over all news reports from the country, including pictures and video, has also prevented the famine from garnering a great deal of press.

Is aid being diverted?
The North Korean government's reluctance to allow aid workers and monitors full access to the affected areas has led to suspicions and rumors of aid diversion. The UN World Food Program provides detailed monitoring of its aid from ports to distribution in individual homes. WFP officials have asserted confidence numerous times that their system to monitor the distribution of their aid has been effective, and aid workers have seen evidence that children targeted for WFP aid have been gaining weight. Moreover, the WFP has made it clear to the North Korean government that it will not distribute food to areas to which it lacks full access.
In January 2000, 21 UN agencies and non-governmental organizations working in North Korea released a statement expressing concerns about obstacles they encounter in carrying out their work. The statement reported that the conditions under which these organizations operate "limit and constrain implementation, accountability, verification and access to the most vulnerable." Despite these concerns, the UN continues to provide assistance to North Korea, and continues to attempt to implement strict verification procedures. The Hunger Relief Fund for North Korea has elected to funnel donations through the American Friends Service Committee in part because the nature of the donations (agricultural inputs) makes it unlikely that they will be diverted, and because AFSC has long-standing relationships with North Korean counterparts.

What can be done?
A variety of international agencies, non-governmental organizations, and governments have been working together to develop solutions to both the immediate crisis and the long-term problems of North Korean hunger. While the situation remains critical, international relief workers who have visited North Korea on several occasions have seen evidence that food aid is making a difference in the health of the population at large, and particularly of children.


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