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Hunger and malnutrition stalk North Korea

Malnourished child
Just eight World Food Program biscuits a day will save this malnourished child  

By Jamie FlorCruz
CNN's Beijing Bureau Chief

(CNN) -- More disturbing images of hungry North Korean children filtered out of Pyongyang this week at the end of a visit by a team of World Food Programme officials.

In a pediatric hospital in Nampo City, southwest of the capital Pyongyang, emaciated children, ill with diarrhea or malnourished, lie listless in beds with their mothers, some fastened with drips to give them basic sustenance.

"The drips were very crude, almost like water bottles with plastic tubing coming out," says Catherine Bertini, WFP executive director. "We saw other children who had marks on their faces from various stages of malnutrition. These children were in very bad shape."

It's a near replay of chilling pictures from past years of dying children, their stomachs bloated, arms hanging like twigs and eyes staring vacant.

Over 250,000 people, the communist government admits, have died during the food crisis.

They are victims not of war but of miserable years of failed Stalinist policies, bad weather and poor harvests.

North Korea's food shortage started in 1991, when the former Soviet Union collapsed and its satellite states stopped sending food and other economic aid. Since 1995, floods, droughts and tropical storms have exacerbated the country's agricultural and industrial problems.

Situation no longer dire

CNN's Jaime Florcruz takes a look at the famine situation in North Korea and the work of the World Food Program

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Bertini, on her fourth visit to North Korea since 1997, says the food situation is no longer that dire. There is something to eat in the regions where the Pyongyang government allows food aid organizations to distribute food.

The WFP has helped re-fit baking factories to produce nutrient-fortified food supplements, such as baby food, rice-and-milk blend, dough and biscuits.

If a North Korean child gets eight WFP biscuits a day, Bertini explains, he or she will have 100% of the basic nutrients. The goal is to get these biscuits to every child attending school.

The WFP, the largest international aid agency in the country, aims to provide one million tons of emergency food to more than 7.6 million of the hungriest and most vulnerable people. Even if they succeed, that means reaching only nearly one-third of the 24 million population.

The worst of the famine may be over but the WFP thinks the food situation remains precarious. For over three months in spring, drought has devastated farms and depleted agricultural yields. Industries remain depressed, limiting Pyongyang's ability to generate foreign currency and import food.

As a result, WFP says, Pyongyang's Public Distribution System intends for the rest of the year to reduce individual daily ration to just 150 grams from the 215 grams of the last eight months. In the past, an adult usually received 300 to 400 grams.

Exodus from hunger

The chronic famine and claims of political repression are spurring an exodus of refugees. Recently the Chang family took refuge in a United Nations office in Beijing, they are eventually being allowed to resettle in South Korea.

They are but one family as countless more refugees cross Korea's border with China, searching for food relief, if not asylum.

The WFP says no long-term solution is in sight.

Says Bertini: "North Korea does not grow enough food to feed its population. Even with significant improvements in its agricultural production, many agricultural experts say it could not grow enough, it's a mountainous country, and it may not be food self-sufficient ever."

Not to be self-sufficient in food is no crime; many countries are not. But North Korea lacks the industries to generate exports and foreign currency to import its food.

And despite earlier noises of North Korea embarking on Chinese-style reforms, the WFP saw no signs of much-needed agricultural and economic reforms happening soon.

"Ultimately, food aid is going to be a need for a long period of time, until there are significant strides forward in order for the country to be able to improve its own economic well-being."

Until then, famine and malnutrition will likely stalk North Korea's unfortunate inhabitants.

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