North Korean food shortages have left generations stunted

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Mass starvation is no longer the crisis it once was in North Korea, but the nation still endures high levels of food insecurity. More than 40 percent of the population is undernourished — up to 10.3 million people don’t get enough to eat, according to the World Food Programme. And the political, social and health consequences of the famine a generation ago still linger today.

Severe food shortages in the mid-1990s devastated the country. Some 3 million people died, and many others barely survived on a diet of contraband grain or watery gruel.

And long after the worst of the famine, North Koreans continue to bear its marks. Through his research, Daniel Jong Schwekendiek a professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul who has researched nutrition in North Korea, found that:
– Contemporary South Korean preschool children are up to 3 kilograms (about 6 and a half pounds) heavier than North Korean preschoolers.
– South Korean women on average weigh 4 to 9 kilograms (8.8 to 19.9 pounds) more than their peers in the North.
– Those differences are the result of “socio-economic living conditions,”, not any genetic differences between the populations north and south of the Demilitarized Zone.

For North Korean children who defect to South Korea, their weight catches up within two years. As for their height, that depends on when the child enters South Korea and what diet they are exposed to, according to Lee Soo-kyung, nutrition professor at Inha University in South Korea.

In recent years, nutritional conditions in North Korea have improved. The number of North Korean children under the age of 5 suffering from stunting, or short stature resulting from  chronic malnutrition, has fallen to about 19 percent, according to UNICEF, down from 28 percent in 2012. But that still leaves 1 in 5 North Korean children under 5 years old stunted.

Life in the capital, Pyongyang,  presents the most flagrant example of inequality. Stunting affects 10 percent of children in Pyongyang, compared to 32 percent of those in rural Ryanggang considered moderately or severely stunted, according to UNICEF.


This entry was posted in , by Grant Montgomery.

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