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Severe Food Shortage Strikes North Korea


North Korea is bracing for another season of severe hunger. To help combat the problem, the North Korean government is now requiring that millions of people in cities head to farms each weekend to help rice farmers. The country's main international source of food aid is the World Food Programme. The WFP defends on foreign contributions, which have been dropping. Richard Ragan is the programme's country director based in the capital, Pyongyang. He and his staff have been keeping an eye on the hunger crisis during regular trips around the country.

Mr. RICHARD RAGAN (North Korea Country Director, World Food Programme): This is the first time that we've seen as massive a mobilization. We had a staff member today report to me that they were in a province called South Hwanghae, they were in a city, and they noticed that there was nobody in the city. And when they asked why there was no one around, it was reported that everyone was out in the countryside, working in the fields.

NORRIS: Who's affected most by the current shortage of food?

Mr. RAGAN: Well, anytime there's a market transition--which North Korea in 2002 went from a state-planned economy to a market-planned economy. It hasn't completely gone to a market economy, but it's experimenting with it--and there are wage earners who are on a fixed income, who are unable to purchase food in the market. I mean, we estimate that around 70 percent of the population receives food from something called the public distribution system. And that public distribution system, we think, is only providing about 50 percent of the food need. So that means that 70 percent of the population has to get more than half of their food from somewhere else, and that somewhere else is generally the market.

The price for a kilo of rice in the market today is between 750 and 800 won. And an average North Korean wage earner makes about 2,500 won per month, which is roughly the equivalent of one US dollar, so you can imagine with a situation like that, it affects pretty much everybody in the country.

NORRIS: Richard, some have said that the food crisis is on the scale of the mid-1990s, at a point where millions of North Koreans starved to death. At this point, are you starting to see evidence of illness and starvation?

Mr. RAGAN: I mean, when we travel around the country, we see, for example, in the baby homes--which are places where children who are having a difficult time getting enough food often end up--we see an increase in the number of children in baby homes where outright, you know, doing what we call a household survey, questioning families around the country about their food security situation. And in our conversations with Koreans, we're hearing that the situation for them is getting more and more difficult.

NORRIS: Richard, I want to take you back to something that you mentioned earlier. The current crisis is due, in part, to the really very restrictive government policies there in North Korea. When you move about the country and actually talk to people, what do they have to say about this? Do they point a finger at the government?

Mr. RAGAN: No, not at all. I think they're--you know, that's one thing that's interesting about the country is the people are very much behind the government. People are educated very early on about how they're governed, who governs them, and they're very supportive of the system that they live under. They clearly believe that the government will provide for them.

NORRIS: Richard Ragan, thanks for talking to us.

Mr. RAGAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

NORRIS: Richard Ragan is the North Korea country director for the World Food Programme. He spoke to us from Pyongyang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Norris