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North Korea allows a distressing look at famine and illness

The Guardian - October 8, 2011

Tania Branigan Footage of malnourished North Korean orphans and official warnings over failed harvests have given a rare glimpse at the scale of devastating food shortages in the country after a harsh winter early this year and widespread flooding.

The Reuters AlertNet humanitarian news service was allowed to make a rare, tightly controlled trip to South Hwanghae, a farming province in the country's arable heartland, where they reported signs of severe malnutrition in children and medical staff said they lacked needed drugs.

"The natural disasters of last year and this year have forced the people to live on potatoes and corn. Because people aren't taking in proper nutrition, the number of inpatients has increased," a doctor, Jang Kum-son, said. "While in May the number of inpatients was about 200, we have had around 350 inpatients each month from July to September."

Kim Chol-jun, a paediatrician at a school for orphans, said heavy rainfall and flooding had contaminated water supplies, leading to digestive diseases.

The governing people's committee said a bitter winter had destroyed 65 per cent of South Hwanghae's barley, wheat and potato crops, and that rains, flooding and typhoons had destroyed 80 per cent of the maize harvest. Officials said they expected less than half the usual rice crop this month.

The World Food Program has warned it has only 30 per cent of the funding it needs for its relief operation, which targets 3.5 million of North Korea's most vulnerable citizens.

It estimated in March that a quarter of the country's 24 million inhabitants needed food aid and that a third of children were chronically malnourished.

North Korea has struggled with its food supply since the crippling famine of the 1990s.

Its biggest donors South Korea and the US have yet to decide whether to resume aid that was suspended in 2008, and rises in global commodity prices have exacerbated North Korea's food problems.

But Seoul abandoned an offer to provide emergency flood aid this week, saying Pyongyang had not responded to it.

Some suspect that Pyongyang may be hoarding crops to ensure there is plenty of food next year. The North has pledged that next year the centenary of its founder Kim Il-sung's birth it will become a major power.

Professor Hazel Smith, an expert on North Korea at Cranfield University in Britain, said South Hwanghae was particularly vulnerable because it was a heavily militarised area making trading harder and its closeness to Pyongyang meant much of its food was used to feed the army.

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