28 percent of North Korean children are stunted — abnormally short for their age, a condition that the World Health Organization calls the “largely irreversible outcome of inadequate nutrition and repeated bouts of infection during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.”
The roots of what is known as “food insecurity” lie partly in the geography and climate of the country. Mountains cover most of the nation, leaving few places to farm. North Korea is also beset by widespread erosion and frequent drought. In addition, many of the country’s farmers do not have access to modern agricultural machinery like tractors and combines.
Around 30 percent of the country’s food comes from external sources. Foreign aid provides a good portion of that 30 percent, but funding for aid programs has been getting scarce. A report released this month by the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP), which relies on donations from the governments of member nations, reveals it only has $15 million to address the $50 million yearly need in North Korea.
Current sanctions allow exemptions for humanitarian food aid, but Lewis says the process of getting a humanitarian exemption is cumbersome and intimidating. “It’s really hard to be sure you’re in compliance, particularly with the U.S. Treasury regulations,” C. Jerry Nelson, professor emeritus of plant sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia explains. “Donors are put off, vendors are put off by these restrictions. It’s just easier not to get involved.”
David Orr, communications officer for the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP), agrees that donors are leery. In an emailed statement to NPR, Orr wrote that “the legal and political consequences of the sanctions have resulted in UN member states, private companies and individuals exercising greater caution, or reluctance, when engaging with WFP and the UN system in general.”
Up to 195,000 kindergarten-aged schoolchildren will lose food aid this year after WFP suspended a program offering “supplemental nutrition” in November 2017 due to lack of funding.
“It’s impossible to talk about food security in North Korea without talking about their odious songbun system, the social control mechanism by which they stratify the nation into different social classes,” Eberstadt Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute argues.
Songbun refers to a longstanding system of state-sponsored discrimination. Large numbers of people in North Korea — mostly urban citizens who can’t grow their own food — consistently rely on government-issued rations. How much you get is determined by your family’s perceived loyalty to the state. If your grandfather fought the Japanese in the 1940s or worked in a factory, your rations are likely to be relatively generous. But if your grandfather was a lawyer or a merchant, your rations are comparatively meager. Given this system, “it’s hardly surprising that there should be rampant malnutrition in North Korea,” Eberstadt says.