by Manasi Sharma
When you think of North Korea, you may first think of the ongoing nuclear weapons debates and political squabble with the U.S. Yet according to the latest United Nations report, the most significant problem affecting North Koreans is the current shortage of food there.
The UN report found that more than three-quarters of North Korean families have cut their food intake to two meals per day. Even city dwellers are facing higher food prices. A recent Time magazine article says many children have stopped attending school due to hunger, while their parents search for food instead of going to work.
North Korea hasn’t seen such a devastating food crisis since the 1990s, when a famine took more than a million lives. Time blames the government for the current food shortage. In the 1990s, government officials privatized food distribution to some extent so that farmers could sell grains and food throughout the country. The result was that famished North Koreans could still find food. But in 2005, according to Time, the government broke up these markets and confiscated grain from farmers, leading to the current shortfall of production. Destructive floods in 2007 further hampered the country's agricultural production.
The UN also reported a rising number of children suffering from malnutrition and diarrhea. The food crisis guarantees more hunger-related deaths according to an expert on North Korean economy at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
North Korea’s leadership does not want to pursue market reform according to Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He says allowing open markets to emerge in the state dominated food distribution sector would imply a significant change of Pyongyang’s policies. Major reforms are not a part of North Korean culture or government, a regime that requires government permission to own a cell phone or computer. However, without changes in policy and perhaps even ideology, North Koreans will continue to experience health-related problems if the government is unable to provide basic necessities such as food.
The World Food Program has expanded their food aid program in North Korea in hopes of reaching 6.5 million people. Without additional help from donor countries, North Koreans may see the 1990s famine repeat itself.