Famine hit North Korea, report finds

This handout photo from the World Food Programme (WFP) shows a North Korean worker stacking sacks of maize donated by South Korea through the United Nations World Food Programme at the port of Nampo. (Gerald Bourke, AFP)
This handout photo from the World Food Programme (WFP) shows a North Korean worker stacking sacks of maize donated by South Korea through the United Nations World Food Programme at the port of Nampo. (Gerald Bourke, AFP)
Seoul - A famine in a key North Korean grain-growing region in 2012 may have killed thousands of people at the same time as the country was staging mass celebrations to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the state's founder, according to a news agency based in Japan.

It was impossible to verify the report independently, and sporadic famines are commonplace in North Korea, according to experts based in South Korea. A UN analysis in 2011 showed that around a third of children were malnourished.

The report from ASIAPRESS said that, based on its own reporting from the region and from contact with North Korean defectors and people crossing the border, a famine hit the North and South Hwanghae provinces in January-May 2012.

"Farming villages in the Hwanghae region, and especially in southern Hwanghae province, play an important part as a base for food supply for not just the army but also for city workers," the report, published last week, said.

It cited examples of farmers and labourers in the region, in the southwest of the country, saying that "about a tenth" of a work brigade of 60 people in one village had died.

Another case cited said that the death rate had been "30 people out of every 1 000. They say this is 30 times as high as a normal year."

ASIAPRESS is an independent publisher based in Osaka, Japan, that operates with undercover journalists inside North Korea.

None of the North Korean residents was named fully in the report and it was impossible to confirm its contents, although the organisation said its reporters had visited the region.

A report by the UN World Food Programme published in November estimated that overall food production rose by 10% for the 2012 and 2013 early season harvest, leaving a staple food deficit of 207 000 tons -something it said was "the lowest in many years".

AlertNet, a humanitarian news service run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, visited South Hwanghae in October 2011 and saw first-hand evidence of malnutrition at orphanages.

Despite an improvement in the overall food picture in the North, the need to feed the army and ensure supplies to the capital Pyongyang, the showcase city and core support base for the government, meant it was possible there were regional famines that have not been reported, experts said.

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