South's Trade Cuts Will Burden Impoverished North

The U.S. supports South Korea's decision to sever nearly all trade with North Korea. The decision may be directed at North Korea's ruler but the impact will be felt by North Korea's impoverished population. Lena Savelli is head of the U.N.'s World Food Program office in Beijing, she discusses the implications of these developments with Renee Montagne.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

As weve just heard, Secretary of State Clinton supports South Koreas decision to sever nearly all trade with North Korea. That decision may be directed at North Koreas ruler. But to find out how it will affect North Koreas impoverished population, we called Lena Savelli. She's head of the U.N.s World Food Program office in Beijing. She travels frequently to North Korea, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, also known as the DPRK.

Thank you for joining us.

Ms. LENA SAVELLI (World Food Program): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: By some estimates, South Korean sanctions would deprive North Korea of about 15 percent of its trade. What impact would this have on ordinary people in North Korea?

Ms. SAVELLI: Well, from the World Food Program we're hoping its not going to have too much of an impact. President Lee Myung-bak has announced that humanitarian assistance would continue regardless of these new restrictions, and its needed. The humanitarian situation in the country continues to be very difficult. Last years harvest was far below what the country needs even to provide just basic food supply to their people. You can already see it in malnutrition rates in the country, with one in three children under five being chronically malnourished and one in four pregnant women also being malnourished.

So we hope its not going to have too much of an impact but that there will be regular supplies of humanitarian assistance coming to the vulnerable people in the country.

MONTAGNE: Maybe getting away from the most vulnerable and those who get humanitarian assistance, what kind of effect might this cut in trade to North Korea have on maybe people who are a little less vulnerable?

Ms. SAVELLI: Well, any disruptions in trade will mean that there's less food coming into the country, which could impact the food flows in the country. But we hope that at least the most vulnerable will continue to get that critical assistance they need to be able to feed themselves.

MONTAGNE: Let's look back for a moment to the really terrible food shortages that North Korea had in the 1990s. Is it better positioned today, or could something like that happen again, a big famine?

Ms. SAVELLI: Well, the situation from the '90s is not there right now, but there are chronic food shortages in the country even still. About a quarter of the country needs, they simply don't have each year, and there's less food coming in both through imports and through assistance right now. So for the most vulnerable people, they're already malnourished and are eating every day just the poor diet of some rice, some maize, some vegetables. You know, meat and fish are really luxuries that few North Koreans eat more than a few times per year.

MONTAGNE: And how much is the World Food Program, which you work for, the U.N.'s World Food Program, how much is that able to make up for these shortages?

Ms. SAVELLI: The World Food Program is right now providing food assistance to about 1.4 million North Koreans. This is mainly small children, pregnant women who we give special fortified foods to help fight malnutrition. We have had difficulty attracting donor funding recently, so we have not been able to reach as many people as we hoped for. We believe that up to six million people or more could be in need of food assistance. But more resources are not available right now. So we're feeding 1.4 million people.

MONTAGNE: You know, you've been working in North Korea for years. Give us a sense of what life generally is like for people out in the rural areas, and those are the people, I gather, that are the poorest.

Ms. SAVELLI: Well, it's a difficult situation in the DPRK. I mean it's not only the food shortages that are that the people are suffering from. You have poor water and sanitation. You have an infrastructure that's falling down. You have hospitals that are lacking medicine and proper health care. And all this in combination is really disastrous for particularly children, for sick people who need assistance. And for longer periods it's very difficult to go on like this.

MONTAGNE: Lena Savelli is the head of the World Food Program in Beijing and has traveled often to North Korea. Thanks very much for talking with us.

Ms. SAVELLI: Thank you.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.