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Nutrition status in the DPRK: Two in five are undernourished, says UN in latest report

Two in five North Koreans are undernourished says the UN’s 2017 DPRK Needs and Priorities report published this month. It also reports that one in five North Koreans do not have access to clean water and adequate sanitation.

“Amidst political tensions”, the report says, “an estimated 18 million people across DPRK continue to suffer from food insecurity and undernutrition, as well as a lack of access to basic services.”

More than 70 per cent of the population – including 1.3 million children under the age of five – depend on the Government for rations of cereal and potatoes provided by the country’s Public Distribution System (PDS).

“Furthermore, 10.5 million people, or 41 per cent of the total population, are undernourished.” The report notes, however, that “there has been steady improvement since 2000, in part as a result of humanitarian assistance [Italics added. Editor].”

During 2016, average monthly PDS rations were reduced from 380 grams/person/day to 300 grams/person/day between July and September. This is the equivalent of just over 50 percent of the daily calorific requirements for an adult. Fluctuations over the year are normal, but overall, PDS rations are consistently lower than the Government target of an average of 573 grams/person/day.

The UN report finds that health service delivery remains inadequate, with many areas not equipped with sufficient facilities, equipment or medicines to meet people’s basic health needs. Those most at risk from the consequences of a lack of access to health care include under-five children, pregnant women, people living with disabilities and the elderly.

Diarrhoea and pneumonia are the two main causes of death amongst under-five children in DPRK. Diarrhoea is mainly caused by lack of safe drinking water, poor sanitation and hygiene practices, and is also a contributing factor for childhood pneumonia and malnutrition.

These humanitarian needs and vulnerabilities have been exacerbated by the frequent natural disasters that have hit the country; floods and droughts have sometimes occurred in the same year. The most recent natural disaster to effect the country were the devastating North Hamgyong floods in September 2016 – see earlier blog stories here and here.

The UN report identifies a funding requirement of US$114 million in 2017. This requirement is broken down by sector as:

  • US$39 million – Nutrition
  • US$37 million – Health
  • US$30 million – Food Security
  • US$8 million – Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

The report said that international sanctions had affected humanitarian efforts by making it more difficult for agencies to transfer funds and equipment to DPRK. Although the international sanctions imposed on DPRK clearly exempt humanitarian activities, they have unintentionally caused disruptions to humanitarian operations. Since 2013, banking channels have been regularly disrupted, with agencies unable to transfer funds into the country. Prolonged disruptions have forced agencies to reprioritise implementation of life-saving activities, as well as cancelling or postponing others.

Aid agencies are also faced with delays in procurement as a result of additional requirements for licensing, as well as the need to ensure that equipment or supplies are not on the sanctions list.

The UN report also noted a “radical decline in donor funding since 2012”.

“As a result agencies have been forced to significantly reduce the assistance they provide. Consequently, critical needs of some of the most vulnerable have not been met.

“More predictable funding is urgently required to ensure the immediate needs of the most vulnerable are addressed.”

UN emergency fund releases US$8 million to assist most vulnerable women and children in DPRK

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 29 January 2016 released US$8 million from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for severely underfunded aid operations in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK). These funds will enable life-saving assistance for more than 2.2 million people most vulnerable and at risk of malnutrition. The DPRK was one of nine countries to receive such grants within the overall $100 million allocation to underfunded emergencies[1].

Undernutrition is a fundamental cause of maternal and child death and disease: in DPRK, chronic malnutrition (stunting) among under-five children is at 27.9 per cent, while 4 per cent of under-five children are acutely malnourished (wasting). Around 70 per cent of the population, or 18 million people, are considered food insecure. Food production in the country is hampered by a lack of agricultural inputs and is highly vulnerable to shocks, particularly natural disasters. Due to drought in 2015, 11 per cent of the main harvest was lost.

Full press statement from reliefweb.int (OCHA) here.


[1] The OCHA/CERF underfunded emergencies (UFE) first allocations for 2016 was announced here on 29 January 2016. It benefited 4.5 million people in “nine silent and severely underfunded crise” including “the protracted and forgotten humanitarian crisis in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ($8 million)”.