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North Korea has had one of the worst harvests in a decade. Millions are not getting enough to eat. The biggest worry is families with young children. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul that foreign donors are trying to assess food needs before they send in aid. But nothing is easy when working in the most isolated country in the world.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The first challenge aid agencies face is this.
MARIO ZAPPACOSTA: To get information in North Korea is very difficult.
KUHN: That's Mario Zappacosta, a Rome-based economist with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
ZAPPACOZTA: So even to have information from 12 counties can be seen as a remarkable achievement.
KUHN: This spring, he and other UNFAO and World Food Programme experts fanned out across 12 counties in six of North Korea's nine provinces. They spoke with local farmers and officials. They visited grain stores and nursery schools. Zappacosta says he was struck by what North Koreans told him they were eating.
ZAPPACOZTA: Rice with limited quantities of maize and some vegetables during the period vegetables are available.
KUHN: In winter, many North Koreans don't really have any vegetables other than kimchi, a spicy, fermented cabbage dish. They're not getting enough protein. Meat, eggs and fish are a rare treat often available only on holidays - or even enough calories.
ZAPPACOZTA: And in some areas where they just depend on potatoes, they just eat potato. There is a really poor and monotonous diet. This was really remarkable.
KUHN: The survey concluded that North Korea is facing its worst harvest in a decade. As a result, more than 10 million North Koreans or about 40% of the population face food shortages. That's not nearly as bad as the mid-1990s, when up to 3.5 million people starved to death. But the survey did find that the country will have a shortage of just over a million metric tons of food.
ZAPPACOZTA: We may be somehow wrong slightly up or down. But the order of magnitude - we're quite confident.
KUHN: The poor harvests are due, in part, to bad weather - record droughts in some places and flooding in others. And although international sanctions are aimed at the North's military not civilians, they make it hard to get machine parts and gas needed for efficient mechanized farming.
ZAPPACOZTA: With the reduced availability of fuel, we saw people using oxen but also doing by hand.
KUHN: Last week, South Korea approved $8 million in food and medicine for aid agencies to distribute in North Korea. South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul told reporters last week that the aid does not violate any sanctions. But Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, co-editor of the blog NKEconwatch, says that $8 million worth of food is not going to make much difference. He argues that the food shortages are less about how much food is produced than about how it's distributed. And the distribution, he says, favors politically loyal elites in Pyongyang.
BENJAMIN KATZEFF SILBERSTEIN: North Korea's food shortages really aren't about - they're not about external shocks from the weather or from sanctions. They're about a system. That's it.
KUHN: It's also about the government's spending priorities, Silberstein argues. Despite the food shortages, Pyongyang has enough money for vanity projects like beach and ski resorts and, of course, weapons systems.
KATZEFF SILBERSTEIN: Well, if you can manufacture nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, clearly, you can import enough food to make up for the shortfall in the harvest. There is no doubt about it.
KUHN: Silberstein notes that international donors have been giving North Korea food aid since the late 1990s. Aid groups don't want to let people starve, regardless of the North Korean government's choices. But as long as Pyongyang puts off necessary reforms to its system, he says, the shortages will continue.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.
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