Despite better harvests this year, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) will have another substantial food deficit in 2004, requiring a large amount of external assistance, two United Nations agencies said today.
A combination of insufficient domestic production, the narrow and inadequate diet of much of the population and growing disparities in access to food as the purchasing power of many households declines, means that some 6.5 million vulnerable North Koreans will require assistance next year, according to a joint report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP).
The situation remains "especially precarious" for young children, pregnant and nursing women and many elderly people, the Rome-based agencies warned.
The report projected domestic cereal availability in the 2003/04 marketing season (November-October) at 4.16 million tonnes, 4.7 per cent up from the revised 2002/03 estimate of 3.97 million tonnes.
The 2003 rice and maize harvests each rose by an estimated 4.5 per cent over 2002, to 1.48 million tonnes (milled basis) and 1.73 million tonnes respectively. The improvements were attributed to favourable weather, a relatively low incidence of crop pests and diseases, increased application of donated fertilizer andbetter irrigation.
Forecasting total cereal needs - food, animal feed and seeds - for 2003/04 at 5.1 million tonnes, the FAO/WFP report projected an import requirement of 944,000 tonnes. Given anticipated commercial imports of 100,000 tonnes, concessional imports of 300,000 tonnes, and food aid expected to be in stock or to arrive after 1 November, 2003 of 140,000 tonnes, the uncovered gap will be 404,000 tonnes.
Despite evidence of improved nutritional levels in recent years, malnutrition rates remain "alarmingly high", the report said. Four out of ten young children suffer from chronic malnutrition, or stunting, according to a large-scale, random sample survey conducted in October 2002 by UNICEF and WFP. Continued, targeted food aid interventions are essential to prevent a slippage back towards previous, higher levels of malnutrition, the UN agencies said.
The economic policy adjustment process initiated in July 2002 has led to many factories being unable to pay full wages. Combined with food price increases that were higher than increases in wages, this has caused a further deterioration in the already inadequate purchasing power of many households, especially in urban areas.
Rations from the Public Distribution System (PDS) - a primary source of food for the 70 per cent of North Korea's 23 million people living in urban areas- are set to decline to no more than 300 grams per person per day in 2004, from 319 grams this year, according to government authorities. The present allocation ensures only half of an individual's caloric requirements.
Low as the PDS rations may be, industrial workers and elderly people now spend up to 60 per cent of their income on these rations alone. After paying for non-food necessities, they can ill-afford staples such as rice and maize in private markets, where prices are as much as 3.5 times higher, let alone more nutritious foods.
As the situation may worsen in the immediate future, the report recommended that attention also be given to the low-income PDS dependents in urban areas rendered increasingly under-employed by economic adjustment process.
The FAO/WFP report urged that 484,000 tonnes of commodities, including 400,000 tonnes of cereals, be sought as food aid for 2004 for the most vulnerable North Koreans. Three-quarters of the total is earmarked for children in nurseries, kindergartens, primary schools, orphanages and hospitals, pregnant and nursing women and elderly people.
Despite improvements in the operating environment for aid agencies, the report noted that there are still restrictions on access to the needy and to marketsand shops, reducing the scope for monitoring and the timely detection of newly emerging food-insecure groups. But it also says that the North Korean government has been more forthcoming with information needed to assess household food security.
The report recommended that "in addition to providing urgently needed food aid, the international community enter with the government into a policy dialogue to set an enabling framework to mobilise the economic, financial and other assistance needed to promote sustainable food production and overall food security."