Press Conference by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs on Food Insecurity in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

26 October 2011

Press Conference by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs on Food Insecurity in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

26 October 2011
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs


on Food Insecurity in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea


The United Nations top humanitarian official this afternoon urged the international community to bolster relief aid to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, where an estimated 6 million people now relied on food donations for survival.

“We are not in a position to turn our backs on the people of the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea],” said Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, during a Headquarters press conference reporting on her five-day trip there last week.

The highly food insecure Southeast Asian nation, which continued to grapple with unreliable food supplies, insufficient agricultural production and underdevelopment, would not be able to feed its people in the foreseeable future, she said.  New solutions were needed to end “this chronic, seemingly never-ending crisis”, she said.  Small changes, like supporting kitchen gardens, which were proven to improve nutrition, would be a good first step. 

During her trip to Pyongyang, the capital, and to South Hamgyong and Kangwon provinces, Ms. Amos met with Government officials, United Nations agency staff, representatives of non-governmental organizations, donors, health-care workers and families.  She visited two hospitals, an orphanage, a communal farm, a local market, a medical warehouse and a public distribution centre. 

She found that the country had, on average, just 1 million of the 5.3 million tons of food needed annually.  Its average annual per hectare yields of rice were less than half of that of most other countries.  Public food rations, which had been cut in half — from 400 grams per person in March to about 200 grams per person in July — had stayed at that level ever since.  The population was surviving on maize, rice and cabbage. 

“Travelling around the country, one cannot help but notice that people — children and adults alike — are generally short and thin,” she said.  Chronic malnutrition, which affected 33 per cent of children under age five, would have “long-term implications for generations to come, even if drastic action is taken today”.

The very limited outside food aid entering the country was a lifeline for the poorest and most vulnerable people, who were most affected by shocks to the Government’s fragile public distribution network and antiquated health system, she said.

Exacerbating the problem was the fact that despite Government efforts to improve access to fertilizer and quality seeds, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea did not have enough arable land to produce the food it needed, she said.  Frequent adverse weather conditions were also to blame, she said, pointing to floods this year that had caused harvest shortfalls. 

In meetings in Pyongyang, Ms. Amos called on Government officials to “lead the humanitarian effort, not be an onlooker”.  She implored the Government to share data and information in order to clearly illustrate the country’s challenge and to reassure donors their money was being well spent, as well as to give all international humanitarian organizations, not just the World Food Programme (WFP), better access to markets, random access to homes and institutions and the right to hire Korean-speaking staff.

“I made clear that the quality of international support will rest on the credibility of the information that we are able to provide, particularly on humanitarian needs and how donor money is being used,” she said.

Asked if the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was being punished for political reasons or whether the low level of international aid was due to donor fatigue, she said the aid shortfall this year had been caused by the global financial crisis, the growth in crises overall and donors’ concerns over food diversion, the in-country policies regarding aid agencies and its long-term structural challenges.

Asked if since her return she had discussed with United States and Republic of Korea officials their cuts in aid, she said that she had also talked about the need for ongoing food aid with the diplomatic missions of those two nations in Pyongyang, as well as with officials of the United States mission in Seoul.  She had also met in Seoul with the Republic of Korea’s Foreign Minister, and next week would debrief Member States at Headquarters.  She was awaiting the outcome of those talks. 

Asked how she would respond to donors about their concerns and whether they were legitimate, Ms. Amos said food diversion could in fact be occurring, although she had not witnessed it during her trip.  She expressed confidence that the monitoring and tracking mechanisms of the WFP and other agencies on the ground were working “extremely well”.  The United Nations was successfully distributing Plumpy’nut, a peanut-based paste fortified with vitamins and minerals, to malnourished children.  She acknowledged as legitimate donors’ concerns over the Government’s policies, saying the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea needed better conservation agriculture, crop diversification and agricultural investment.

As to whether she had discussed long-term solutions to food insecurity issues with Government officials, she said indeed she had talked about the long-term structural problems within the context of this year’s harvest shortfalls, the need for conservation agriculture, a better food mix and investment in agriculture, as well as Government policies to achieve food self-sufficiency.

Asked what percentage of donor aid reached those in need, she said she did not have that information available on hand, but would try to provide it at a later date.  Asked whether the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea understood that the food aid they received was provided by the international community, she said local officials, workers and individual families recognized that fact, but children in orphanages likely did not.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.