“The food security situation in the DPRK is clearly bad and getting worse,” said Tony Banbury, the World Food Programme’s Regional Director for Asia.
“It is increasingly likely that external assistance will be urgently required to avert a serious tragedy,” he said.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO ) recently projected a 2008 food shortfall in DPRK of 1.66 million metric tons, a near doubling of the 2007 deficit, and the highest since 2001.
Prices of staple foods in the capital Pyongyang have doubled over the past year and are now at their highest recorded levels since 2004. Rice now costs around 2,000 won/kg (up from 700-900 won/kg in April 2007) and maize costs around 600 won/kg (350 won/kg in April 2007).
Drastic price rises for pork (now around 5,500 won/kg), potatoes (5,000 won/kg) and eggs (200 won/piece) make these commodities a luxury for most people in DPRK. An average monthly worker’s salary is approximately 6,000 won/month.
Hunger may spread
“The rapid rise in the real price of food for persons living in the DPRK confirms WFP’s fears that the DPRK may suffer deeper and more widespread hunger this year,” said Jean-Pierre de Margerie, WFP Country Director in Pyongyang.
“Now it takes a third of a month’s salary just to buy a few days worth of rice. Families and especially vulnerable persons will suffer from lack of access to food, eat fewer meals and have a poorer diet, increasing their vulnerability to diseases and illness.”
DPRK government statistics, analyzed by FAO, indicate that 2007 agricultural production came to only three million metric tons of cereals (rice, maize, wheat, barley and potatoes).
This represents a 25 percent decrease from the previous year and the lowest overall harvest output since 2001 – when a summer drought caused massive harvest failure across the country.
Chronic food shortfalls
While the DPRK has long suffered chronic food shortfalls due to economic decline and an unfavorable agricultural situation, last year’s heavy floods have brought increased urgency to the problem.
DPRK agricultural statistics indicate decreases in rice and maize production (down 25 percent and 33 percent respectively), as these crops were at their peak growing season when the floods struck.
Food-producing provinces most heavily affected by the floods also show the largest drop in production; the southern-most provinces of South and North Pyongyang, South and North Hwanghae and Kangwon all suffered losses of 23-33 percent compared to the previous year.
Known as “the Cereal Bowl”, significant harvest reductions in these regions will mean food shortages are felt throughout the country. “WFP has long warned that last year’s floods would exacerbate DPRK’s chronic food problem and we are now seeing the effects in the markets,” said de Margerie. “It is obvious that more food imports and external food aid will be needed this year.”
Until 2005, WFP was assisting over six million people in DPRK, about a quarter of the total population. Since 2006, following a DPRK government decision to reduce its operation, WFP has been assisting 1.1 million of the most vulnerable persons, mainly women and children.
Until the scheduled end of the food assistance programme in August 2008, WFP plans to distribute 45,000 metric tons of food in 50 of the DPRK’s 203 counties. WFP estimates that more than 6.5 million people in DPRK suffer from food insecurity – a figure that can be expected to rise if action is not taken to address the growing food shortages.
“WFP stands ready to do its part to help the people of the DPRK meet their minimum food needs, and avoid a possible return to the tragic circumstances of the past,” said Banbury.
“But WFP cannot solve the problem on its own. The DPRK government needs to provide the necessary operating conditions for aid agencies so that donors have confidence that their donations will be used for the intended purposes. And donors need to do their part to ensure that the people of DPRK do not go hungry, or worse.”
WFP’s warning and call for action comes just as the country is about to enter its annual agricultural ‘lean season’ (when households’ food stocks are at their lowest), which has started earlier as a result of last year’s low harvest and will likely be harsher this year following a dry winter (less precipitation).
Malnutrition rates are already high: 37 percent of young children are chronically malnourished, and one third of mothers are malnourished and anemic, according to the last large-scale WFP/UNICEF survey.
“WFP takes the situation very seriously and we will be intensifying discussions with the DPRK Government and major donors that have indicated a willingness to provide food aid to DPRK,” said Banbury.