Food, fuel and medicine shortages plague North Korea
December 14, 1999
KANGDONG CITY, North Korea (CNN) -- North Koreans, still coping with a famine, are now being forced to face the winter without adequate fuel and medicine -- leaving their health at greater risk than before.
A chronic energy shortage and sub-zero temperatures have made staying warm in unheated factories, homes and schools a daily struggle in the country of more than 22 million people, said David Morton, the U.N. World Food Program coordinator in North Korea.
"The hospitals that we go to, it's often warmer to talk to the medical staff outside rather than inside," Morton said.
Families still struggle to put food on their tables. The rice crop was recently harvested, but there isn't enough food to go around.
"The harvest is only three-quarters of what they need for the year, even though it was a better one," Morton said. "So there's still a lot of hunger in the country."
Food crisis victimizing children
North Korean children are the victims of the food crisis, which began in 1995 as a result of natural disasters and economic isolation. Two out of three children in the country have their growth stunted by malnutrition.
A crop assessment issued last month by the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated North Korea would have a grain shortfall of 1.29 million tons, and a deficit in other food of 993,000 tons in the coming year.
North Korea had doubled its use of fertilizer between 1998 and 1999, but still met less than one-third of its needs, it said.
"The nutritional situation remains fragile, with a vicious circle of poor nutrition compounding poor health -- and vice versa -- becoming deeply entrenched," the report said.
The World Food Program is helping feed North Korea's 370,000 pregnant and nursing women. Aid workers travel throughout the country checking records to make sure the food is being properly distributed.
Workers warn system must change
But while international food aid has helped save lives, workers are warning the country's economic system will have to change or North Korea could perpetually be dependent on handouts.
Aid workers suggest the Communist nation will have to let outside capitalists finance large-scale investments in the country if the situation is to ease.
"A lot of the industry has deteriorated in the last 20 years. There's not been that much investment. It's going to need a lot of private investment and inputs from the financial institutions," Morton said.
Morton was the second U.N. official in just over a week to emerge from North Korea with grim accounts of conditions in the staunchly Communist state, where floods and drought from the mid-1990s caused hundreds of thousands of starvation deaths.
An official of the United Nations Children's Fund said last week that inadequate funding was hampering United Nations efforts to provide crucial vaccinations and medicine, and threatened a majority of children with potentially deadly diseases.
North Koreans' health precarious
The fuel shortages, coupled with similarly drastic shortages of medicine and fertilizer, have meant the health of North Koreans remained precarious three years after the peak of the Stalinist state's famine.
"The peak has passed, and the food situation has improved somewhat since then as a result of better harvests in 1998 and 1999, and also because of the effects of very large quantities of food and other aid," Morton said.
"But the crisis is by no means over. In fact, on the health situation, we see a deterioration in the delivery of health services and in the condition of people."
Beijing Bureau Chief Rebecca MacKinnon and Reuters contributed to this report.
Scores of children dead in North Korea famine - Apr. 8, 1997
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