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IV. Current Food Conditions

Based on its estimate of the North Korean population at about 23.7 million in 2005 (up 0.7 percent from 2004),32 FAO/WFP has said North Korea needs 5.3 million tons of grain in 2006.33 The South Korean government estimates the grain need for North Korea’s current population at six million tons.34 Based on per capita consumption before the food crisis in the 1990s, some experts told Human Rights Watch that North Koreans could be expected to consume 6.5 million to seven million tons of grain in 2006.35

FAO/WFP estimates North Korea’s grain harvest in 2005 at 4.5 million tons.36 Food experts agree North Korea had favorable conditions for grain production in 2005, including relatively good weather conditions, a supply of good seeds, less damage than in other years by parasites, a better supply of water, and a stable supply of fertilizer from the international community.37 However, experts believe that about 15 percent of domestic production is lost each year for a variety of reasons, including delays in processing crops, a shortage of transportation and decent storage facilities, and loss to rodents.38 Based on this assumption, North Korea would only have about 3.825 million tons of domestically produced grain from its 2005 harvest.

WFP says bilateral assistance to North Korea in the year from November 2005 to October 2006 is expected to be 750,000 tons, mainly from South Korea and China. It is not known how much grain North Korea imported from other countries, nor how much North Korean merchants individually imported through unofficial channels, but experts on the North Korean economy believe the amount to be not significant enough to affect the overall grain availability. WFP says, based on information available to the agency, North Korea is expected to face a deficit of 150,000 to 350,000 tons of grain from November 2005 to October 2006.39

It should be noted that these estimates are based on optimistic calculations. Some food experts point out that as much as 30 percent of the harvest in North Korea could be lost to a lack of cropping machinery, transportation, and proper storage facilities, as well as losses to rodents.40 WFP’s calculations are also based on assumptions that bilateral aid from China and South Korea will continue at anticipated levels. In other words, even optimistic projections of grain availability suggest that many North Koreans will face food shortages this year.

Concerns about the supply of food are bolstered by other available information. Two North Korean government agencies conducted an anthropometric survey in October 2004, with the collaboration of WFP and UNICEF, among 4,800 households living in seven provinces and one municipal city. The survey said 32 percent of women with a child less than twenty-four months old were malnourished, and showed the nutritional status of North Korean children remained dire, despite improvements in the overall food supply. Among children under six (up to seventy-one months), 37 percent were stunted (too short for their age), 23.4 percent were underweight; and 7 percent were wasted; 12.2 percent of the children were severely stunted, 8.1 percent severely underweight, and 1.8 percent severely wasted. The survey said maternal malnutrition and consequent low birth sizes were associated with the prevalence of stunting. Higher frequency of household consumption of rice and rice products, poultry or meat, red or yellow vegetables, and oil and fat were, unsurprisingly, associated with reduced childhood malnutrition. The survey said the most common source of staple food was state rations or farmers’ rations, but a quarter of the households reported WFP as a source of their staple food.41

Beyond stunting and wasting found among children, according to UNICEF, malnutrition can take a variety of forms that often appear in combination and contribute to each other. These include protein-energy malnutrition, iodine deficiency disorders, and deficiencies of iron and vitamin A. Iodine deficiency can damage intellectual capacity, anemia (deficiency in the oxygen-carrying component of the blood) is a factor in pregnancy and childbirth complications, folate deficiency in expectant mothers can cause birth defects in infants, and vitamin D deficiency can lead to poor bone formation. Vitamin A deficiency has long been known to cause blindness. Even mild vitamin A deficiency also impairs the immune system, reducing children’s resistance to diarrhea and measles.42

[32] “Special Report FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission To The Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea,” FAO/WFP, November 22, 2004. According to the World Health Organization, North Korea had a population of 22,664,000 in 2003, with an annual growth rate of 0.8 percent, which would put the current population at about 23 million. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification also estimates it at about 23 million.

[33] FAO/WFP estimates North Korea loses about 15 percent of the harvest for a variety of reasons, including delays in processing crops and shortages of transportation and decent storage facilities. FAO/WFP also says North Korea needs 230,000 tons of seeds for planting and 180,000 tons of grain for feeding stock animals. “Special Report FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to The Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea,” FAO/WFP, November 22, 2004.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Kwon Tae Jin, Korea Rural Economic Institute, Seoul, December 2005; Human Rights Watch interview with South Korean economist specializing in North Korea (name withheld at interviewee’s request), Seoul, January 2006.

[36] South Korea’s Rural Development Administration estimates the grain production in North Korea in 2005 at 4.54 million tons, up by 5.3 percent from 2004. “Estimated 2005 Grain Production in North Korea,” Rural Development Administration, November 29 , 2005.

[37] Kwon Tae Jin, “North Korea’s Food Availability in 2006 and Prospect of Inter-Korean Cooperation,” Korea Rural Economic Institute, December 2005.

[38] “FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to the DPRK,” FAO/WFP, November 22, 2004.

[39] “Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 10488.0,” WFP, February 3, 2006.

[40] Natsios, The Great North Korean Famine, pp 179-181.

[41] “DPRK 2004 Nutrition Assessment Report of Survey Results,” Central Bureau of Statistics, Institute of Child Nutrition, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, (retrieved on February 7, 2006).

[42] “The Silent Emergency,” UNICEF, (retrieved on February 24, 2006).

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