North Korea's stunted policy stunts
By Aidan Foster-Carter
It's a cliche to complain how little we
really know about North Korea. Hard facts, and
especially figures, are indeed hard - as in
hard to come by.
In some fields this is
perfectly true. The military, obviously. Does
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il have the bomb or
bombs? How many? Where is he hiding them? All
countries keep that kind of information secret.
But no other nation in the world fails to
publish any regular statistics about its economy.
This 40-year silence should temper hype about
market reforms. Without numbers, neither local
enterprises nor external donors or (they wish)
investors can do more than gamble in the dark.
They really do need to know. Providing accurate
numbers is a basic prerequisite of being a modern
Yet North Korea possesses a Central
Bureau of Statistics (CBS), and it is not idle. No
doubt the Dear Leader demands economic data - for
his eyes only. But in some fields, the CBS does
publish its work. One example was North Korea's
1993 census, its first ever.
the CBS has worked with international aid agencies
to collect information that the latter need in a
key area: hunger and its human consequences. The
latest fruits of such cooperation have just been
published in the "DPRK 2004 Nutrition Assessment
Survey", a joint product of the Central Bureau of
Statistics and North Korea's Institute of Child
Nutrition (ICN), with financial and technical help
from United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and
the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). The
two chief consultants were from Australia and
Vietnam, so this was a regional Asian effort. It
follows earlier surveys carried out at two-year
intervals, in 1998, 2000 and 2002.
the WFP that released this report, at a press
conference in Beijing on March 7. It is in fact
dated November 2004; the survey itself was carried
out in October. The delay wasn't explained.
Perhaps the lag was attributable to translation
time and to make sure it was fit for publication
I'm often critical of North
Korea, so all the more reason to give credit when
it's due. This is an impressive, highly
professional report comprising 104 pages, five
chapters, 46 tables, 24 figures. The sample was
4,800 children, ages up to six, and 2,109 mothers
of children under two, drawn evenly from seven of
North Korea's nine provinces plus the capital,
Having taught social science
research methods in a former life, I get a kick
out of reading about random and cluster sampling
(sad, I know). Then I pinch myself. This is North
Korea. An official document! All these numbers!
And on a potentially very sensitive subject, too.
For what this survey measures, with grim
precision, is what years of hunger have done to
the bodies of small children - and I do mean small
- and their mothers in North Korea.
Underweight (for age) is
Stunting, low height for age, signals
Wasting, worst of all, is low weight
relative to height, indicating acute malnutrition.
Each of these categories is sub-divided into mild
and severe cases. For the mothers, a fourth
measure was used: MUAC (mid-upper arm
circumference). Less than 22.5 centimeters means
they aren't eating enough.
technical, there are three main criteria:
So how are
Juche's (juche is the policy of
self-reliance) children faring? The WFP's press
release tried to look on the bright side. Since
the last survey in 2002, the proportion of young
children chronically malnourished (stunted) is
down from 42% to 37%. Acute malnutrition (wasting)
eased from 9% to 7%. But those underweight rose
from 21% to 23% - though for children under the
age of two, those most at risk, this fell from 25%
to 21%. One in five children had diarrhea, and one
in eight showed symptoms of acute respiratory
infection. But mothers have made no progress: a
third were anemic and malnourished, the same
figure as two years ago. Vitamin A deficiency is
Much depends on where people are
living. Things are less bad in Pyongyang and in
the southwestern Hwanghae farming region than in
bleak northeasterly Hamgyong and Ryanggang
provinces. Ryanggangites get to eat meat, fish or
eggs just once every three weeks on average.
Chagang in the far mid-north is bleaker still, but
North Korea doesn't allow access to this area -
probably because of military bases located there.
Thus, no survey was conducted in Chagang, which
means no food aid either; the WFP is strict about
that - surveys first.
Even at the national
level, the few slight improvements offer scant
comfort. The more than one-third (37%) of North
Korean's under six who are stunted - and
especially the one in eight (12%) who are severely
stunted - will grow up stunted and stay that way.
Even once Korea is reunified politically, they
will stand out physically: dwarfed by their
Seoul, meanwhile, has
different - nay, opposite - child health issues.
With uncanny timing, the very same day as the WFP
released its survey on the North, education
officials in the Southern capital reported that
one in 10 schoolchildren in Seoul is overweight.
Obesity rates are growing fast, too. As the old
adage has it, the rich slim while the poor starve.
Back in the North, the WFP doesn't appear
to be leaving any time soon. Richard Ragan, head
of the program's Pyongyang office - and an
American, to boot - said he hopes the agency will
shut up shop one day, once the government and the
private sector can stand on their own feet.
But for now, one anniversary a proud North
Korea won't be celebrating, is that this year
marks a whole decade since it first, reluctantly,
asked the WFP and other agencies for help coping
with flood and famine. While the worst of the
famine has eased, food self-sufficiency - in a
country so mountainous that this is a ludicrous
goal anyway - looks as remote as ever.
still, in 2005, the WFP has extended the begging
bowl for Kim Jong-il - whose own priorities
evidently lie elsewhere. Ever prickly Pyongyang
has bitten the kind hand trying to feed it,
forbidding UN agencies to launch their usual
formal consolidated aid appeal this year.
Nonetheless the WFP is seeking $202 million with
which to buy 504,000 tonnes of food, mainly
And no wonder. In January North
Korea cut its Public Distribution System (PDS)
rations to starvation level: 250 grams of cereal
per person per day, the lowest in five years. Such
cutbacks don't usually happen until March, when
last year's crop typically runs out. This is all
the more odd, since 2004's autumn harvest is
thought to have been the best in years.
Luckily, the WFP currently has enough
stocks - as it did not, in the recent past - to
feed all of its target group: a staggering 6.5
million North Koreans, or nearly one-third of the
entire population. The main categories within this
group are 2.7 million children from birth to the
age of 10 and 2.15 million people in food or work
programs. Other beneficiaries include 900,000
elderly, 300,000 pregnant women and nursing
mothers, and 350,000 in low-income households. The
latter are a new category: victims of the
post-2002 reforms that have seen inequalities
widen, even as the state retreats ever further
from providing any help to the millions of
citizens whom its disastrous past and half-baked
present policies have starved and stunted.
That's my take, not the WFP's. Diplomacy
precludes any such critique from a UN body. Yet
the raw data, the results - written indelibly on
the bodies of innocent children, marked for life -
are there for all to see. It's ironic, but the
same regime that branded this suffering on its
people is at least now registering and owning up
to the outcome: collating and publishing these
damning data, putting its name to the survey, and
signing off on it. That's a start.
his statisticians boldly go, will the Dear Leader
follow? It's so simple. Ditch nukes; watch aid
explode instead. Let the children eat, and grow.
If not, what future is there?
Foster-Carter is honorary senior research
fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds
University, England. He has followed North Korean
affairs for 35 years.
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