North Korea slashes meagre food rations

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The Independent Online

North Korea has slashed daily food rations for its people, fuelling concerns for the health of the country's children who are already showing signs of stunted growth from a lack of proper nourishment.

North Korea has slashed daily food rations for its people, fuelling concerns for the health of the country's children who are already showing signs of stunted growth from a lack of proper nourishment.

World Food Programme (WFP) monitors in the reclusive hardline Communist state said yesterday that the government handouts had been cut from 300 grams of cereals a day to 250 grams. That is half of the minimum daily required cereal ration of approximately 500 grams.

There was speculation that the move may have been prompted by the economic reforms in North Korea, which have led to the introduction of farmers' markets. It could be that the government wants to encourage the privatisation measures, which have led to farmers holding back some of their produce that would otherwise go into the public distribution system. But the 16 million Koreans who depend on the government rations are likely to go hungry as a result.

James Morris, the executive director of the World Food Programme, said he did not know why the North Korean government had cut the rations, but there was much concern about the long-term impact on children. The WFP distributes aid to 6.5 million of the most vulnerable people in North Korea, including nursing mothers and children.

He said: "You look at the average seven-year-old North Korean boy and compare him to the average seven-year-old South Korean boy, he's 20cm shorter and 10kg lighter.

"The future of the Korean peninsula is tied to the development of these children who are showing signs not only of the famine years in the 1990s but also from inadequate nutrition in general. A child who's compromised early in life will never recover, in terms of intellectual and physical development."

Mr Morris stressed that the WFP food supplements, distributed through orphanages, hospitals and schools, would not be affected by the government decision which concerns the public distribution system. "There's no reason for our ration to be cut," he said.

Gerald Bourke, the World Food Programme's public affairs officer for Asia, said the cut was likely to be in effect at least until the middle of the year. "That it is this early in the year is of concern," Mr Bourke said.

It is difficult to assess exact food shortages in North Korea, because of restrictions on foreigners, who are mostly confined to Pyongyang where goods are in relatively good supply because of the presence of the political and military elite. The WFP distributes little aid in Pyongyang but is active in the north and east.

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