Hunger in North Korea

North Korea, one of the most secretive and repressive countries in the world, has faced chronic food shortages since the mid-1990s when hundreds of thousands of people died due to severe famine. The international community responded by providing food assistance until 2009 when aid began to decrease significantly due to North Korea’s policy of “self-reliance.” These 10 facts about hunger in North Korea will reveal how dire the situation is and what government initiatives and NGOs are doing to help.

10 Facts About Hunger in North Korea

  1. North Korea’s climate ranges from temperate, with rainfall during the summer, to long, bitter winters. During the short growing season, drought, heatwaves and flooding have caused crop failure, creating widespread food shortages. North Korea’s total food crop production for 2018-2019 is estimated at 4.9 million metric tons, the lowest since the 2008-2009 season, according to a U.N. food security assessment.
  2. In addition to climate conditions unfavorable for agriculture, North Korea faces a shortage of farming products such as fuel, fertilizer and equipment. This has resulted in low food supply and limited dietary diversity, forcing families to eat less or cut meals.
  3. These unfavorable climatic conditions and the worst harvest in 10 years have resulted in a hunger crisis. More than 10 million North Koreans are suffering from severe food shortages and malnutrition, according to the U.N. This equates to about 40 percent of the total population.
  4. Young children are among the most vulnerable to malnutrition. One in five North Korean children are malnourished and about 20 percent experience stunted growth. Malnutrition, contaminated water and a shortage of drugs and medical supplies are the main causes behind stunting, or a failure to develop physically and cognitively, in North Korean children.
  5. According to Kee Park of the New York Times, sanctions on the capital city Pyongyang contribute to the hunger crisis. Under U.N. resolutions, North Korea is heavily sanctioned because of its nuclear weapons program. Park writes that these sanctions are “punishing the most vulnerable citizens and shackling the ability of humanitarian agencies to deliver aid to them.” Due to sanctions on iron, textiles, seafood, oil and coal, lost income and rising food prices will result in more North Koreans facing hunger.
  6. Despite U.N. sanctions, the U.N. is attempting to raise $111 million for health, water, sanitation and food security needs for 6 million North Koreans. Through donations from Sweden, Switzerland and Canada, about 10 percent has been raised thus far.
  7. The World Food Programme (WFP) has been providing food assistance to North Korea since 1995. Every month, the WFP provides foods fortified with protein, vitamins and minerals, such as cereals and biscuits, to around one million children, pregnant women and nursing mothers, all of whom are the most vulnerable to malnutrition.
  8. In 2018, UNICEF screened 90 percent of North Korean children for malnutrition and identified cases were later treated. Vitamin A supplements were provided to more than 1.5 million children and micronutrient tablets were distributed to more than 28,000 pregnant women.
  9. First Steps is a Vancouver-based nonprofit organization that is implementing innovative solutions for fighting hunger in North Korea, such as its Sprinkles program. The program’s aim is to prevent child malnutrition by delivering micronutrient powder to children, pregnant women and nursing mothers. The powder is packaged in sachets and then added to food. According to First Steps, Sprinkles is a proven and cost-efficient method of preventing and fighting vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
  10. These various forms of assistance have made significant progress in reducing levels of child malnutrition. The percent of children suffering from stunted growth has dropped notably from 28 percent in 2012 to 19 percent in 2017.

Although there has been recent progress, immense humanitarian challenges remain. Despite the fact that vast amounts of North Korean citizens are without basic necessities, the government has declined offers to renounce their nuclear weapons program in exchange for assistance. These 10 facts about hunger in North Korea reveal why a strengthened approach to solving food insecurity is required.

Adam Bentz
Photo: Flickr