Malnutrition Stunts Growth Of N. Korean Children

The United Nations is warning that two-thirds of North Koreans are suffering from chronic food shortages. The UN's representative in Pyongyang says about half the country's children are stunted from malnutrition. While the North Korean government acknowledges the food shortages, there are no signs of structural reform to alleviate the problem.

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The United Nations says 16 million North Koreans suffer from chronic food shortages and that half the country's children are stunted by malnutrition. The UN warns the situation is unlikely to improve and, today, it launched an appeal in Beijing for funds the feed the hungry.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports from the Chinese capital.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: This April, North Korea had a party celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Kim Il Sung. Amid a massive military march and a failed rocket launch, there was a first, the first time North Koreans heard the voice of their new leader, Kim Jong Un.

KIM JONG UN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: That voice is very different from his father, the reclusive Kim Jong Il, who died in December. The new leader has even admitted to food shortages, according to the United Nations coordinator in Pyongyang, Jerome Sauvage.

JEROME SAUVAGE: It is true that Kim Jong Un, for the first time, has spoken about the hardship that the population has incurred on account of food and also in the new year policy editorial, it is made mention of the fact that food has been a difficult problem in the year 2011.

LIM: But no new measures to come to terms with that?

SAUVAGE: There has been no announcement of new measures, other than the commitment on the part of Kim Jong Un to improve the living conditions of the people.

LIM: By one measure, the percentage of malnourished children has tripled over the past two years. In some parts of the country, almost 50 percent of children are stunted. Sauvage says that affects their ability to function and generations to come.

SAUVAGE: Stunting today means that their physical growth, their cognitive development is going to be affected for the rest of their life. Beyond that, if a generation experienced stunting, it's going to transmit it to the next generation.

LIM: This year, the food situation is better than last year, but still, there's an estimated food gap of 414,000 metric tons of cereal. A U.S. deal, which would have filled more than half that shortfall was cancelled due to North Korea's unsuccessful rocket launch.

So far, the United Nations has less than 40 percent of the funding it needs for North Korea. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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