Child malnutrition widespread in N Korea
Seoul – More than a third of children in some parts of North Korea suffer from malnutrition, the UN World Food Programme chief said on Thursday before a visit to the North.
"We are deeply concerned about the situation in child malnourishment... in some areas 35% to 40% of children have no adequate vitamins or nutrients," WFP executive director Josette Sheeran said in Seoul.
She is on a two-day visit to South Korea and will fly on to China before going to the North from November 2 to 4.
A UN report last week warned North Korea is heading for a new food crisis, with drought and floods in various parts of the country exacerbated by cuts in international aid.
The UN Children's Fund has said that each year 40 000 children under five become "acutely malnourished".
International donations have dwindled amid irritation over the regime's missile and nuclear programmes, and Sheeran said the WFP has been forced to halve the size of its project there.
The organisation, which once provided nutritional supplements to children in more than 130 counties, is now operating in only 65 counties and reaching about 671 000 children, she said.
"The nutrition-focused programme that we have now (in the North) is 20% funded as it is... we have a 80% gap in funding," said Sheeran, warning that now is an "extremely difficult time for the world's hungry".
Sheeran, a former journalist who interviewed the North's founding president Kim Il-Sung in 1992, said it was not clear whether she would be allowed to meet his son and current leader Kim Jong-Il or other senior officials.
"We have not received an official schedule yet... we seek to meet at the highest level as we can with the government," she said.
North Korea suffered famine in the 1990s which killed hundreds of thousands of people and still relies on international aid from the WFP and others to help feed its population.
The UN predicts that Pyongyang will have to import 1.1 million tonnes of cereals this year. But UN agencies have raised only 20% of the $492m they estimated in 2009 would be needed for the North.
South Korea used to ship 400 000 tonnes of rice a year plus 300 000 tonnes of fertiliser to the North, but the shipments ended in 2008 as relations worsened between the two sides.
Tensions rose further this year after the South accused the North of torpedoing one of its warships, which Pyongyang denies.
A foreign ministry spokesperson said Sheeran, during a meeting earlier on Thursday with Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan, did not press specifically for Seoul to help send aid to the North.
"She did not directly ask for aid for the WFP's operations in North Korea, saying she understands the political sensitivity of the issue," he told AFP.