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World - Asia/Pacific

Famine-induced diet of 'alternative food' plagues N. Koreans

CNN's May Lee shows pictures from North Korea
Windows Media 28K 80K

May 11, 1999
Web posted at: 4:16 p.m. EDT (2016 GMT)

(CNN) -- As famine-stricken North Korea heads into the leanest time of the year, the general population is surviving by eating "alternative food," ersatz foodstuffs that offer little nourishment while bringing on extreme stomach disorders.

"Fifty percent of the patients in this hospital suffer from malnutrition, and 30 percent have severe digestive problems from eating alternative food," said Dr. Hyon Kwang, director general of Puryong County Hospital in North Hamgyong Province.

He said the birth rate in the county had dropped because of the affect of food shortages on pregnant mothers; in some cases, women were avoiding pregnancy.

North Korea's long-running famine, precipitated by a string of natural disasters and exacerbated by the government's economic policies, already has caused the deaths hundreds of thousands, according to officials in Pyongyang. Western analysts have put the toll at between 1 million and 3 million.

Last month, with the stored food from last year's harvests almost exhausted, the government sharply cut back the rations it distributes, the U.N. World Food Program reported. The lean period will continue until the new crop of vegetables and potatoes becomes available in June.

In the meantime, many people will have to rely on what is called "alternative food" -- either natural, scavenged material such as edible roots, grasses and seaweed, or foodstuffs produced in state factories.

Manufactured "alternative food" consists of cabbage stalks, cornstalks and grasses ground up and mixed with some cereal and an enzyme to make noodles or cakes.

"This locally manufactured alternative food has very little nutritional content and is basically a stomach filler," U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator David Morton said in a statement. "We have seen that eating it can cause serious problems such as digestive difficulties, particularly among the children and the elderly."

North Korea's government has taken piecemeal measures to cope with the famine. It has allowed more private farming plots and farmers markets outside the state distribution system.

But it has not moved to fundamentally overhaul the government-planned economy.

The World Food Program has called for $260 million to feed 8 million North Koreans over the next year, the largest number of people it has sought to help since it started fighting famine in the communist nation four years ago.

CNN's May Lee and Reuters contributed to this report.

Millions of North Koreans suffer during famine
April 27, 1999
$260 million wanted for starving North Koreans
April 24, 1999
Famine may have killed 2 million in North Korea
August 19, 1998
North Korea: Hungry and poor, but proud
April 25, 1997
U.N. to double food aid to North Korea
March 18, 1997

World Food Program
   •WFP - Democratic People's Republic of Korea
North Korea Famine
Relief for North Korea Famine
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