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Famine Looms in North Korea

By Lisa Schlein
Geneva
20 April 2008

The united Nations World Food Program warns North Korea is facing a potential humanitarian food crisis. This follows last year's devastating floods, which resulted in a critically low harvest. The WFP says quick action is needed to avert looming food shortages in a country where millions of people already live on the verge of starvation. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

Chronic food shortages are not new in North Korea. But United Nations officials warn the situation is likely to get worse. They say the country is facing dire food shortages due to last August's heavy floods, which destroyed much of the nation's crops.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization predicts North Korea will suffer the largest food deficit since 2001. It says the country will have a shortfall of 1,600,000 tons of rice and wheat.

A spokeswoman for the World Food Program, Christiane Berthiaume, says food shortages have led to a doubling of prices of staple foods in the capital, Pyongyang, over the past year. She says prices are now at their highest recorded levels since 2004, making food unaffordable for most people.

"Now, it takes one-third of a month's salary just to buy a few days worth of rice. So, families, and especially vulnerable persons will suffer from the lack of access to food. They are going to eat fewer meals and they will have a poor diet and this will increase their vulnerability to disease and illness," said Berthiaume. "You know the situation is already quite dire. Thirty-seven percent of young children are chronically malnourished and one-third of mothers are malnourished and anemic."

Famine in North Korea in the 1990's is believed to have killed about one million people and stunted the growth of many children. Until 2005, the World Food Program had been helping more than six million people, about one-quarter of the population. Then the government told the U.N. agency to reduce its operation.

Since then, WFP has been providing food to just over one million of the most vulnerable people, mainly women and children. Berthiaume says WFP estimates more than 6.5 million people in North Korea suffer from food insecurity.

She says that figure will rise if action is not taken to address the growing food shortages. She says WFP is ready to help North Korea avoid the tragedy of another famine.

"North Korea needs to provide all the necessary conditions for aid agencies so that donors will be confident enough that their donations are used for the intended purposes," said Berthiaume.

Berthiaume says the WFP has a policy of no access, no food. In other words, she says the World Food Program must be able to monitor the distribution of food to make sure food goes to the right people.



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