The World Food Program and the U.N. children's agency say there are signs that malnutrition is beginning to ease in North Korea. However, they say the reclusive Communist country is still falling far short of feeding its people adequately. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Beijing, where U.N. workers based in North Korea briefed reporters on Monday.
Richard Ragan, director of the World Food Program's North Korea operations, told journalists that in 2002, 42 percent of North Korean children under the age of six were found to be malnourished. He said a random survey by the WFP and UNICEF last October showed that the rate in this age group had dropped to 37 percent.
"We think we can mainly attribute this improvement to the provision of humanitarian assistance, as well as to a slight increase in the overall production of agriculture," he said.
Mr. Ragan said he believes the survey highlights the importance of international food donations to North Korea. However, he said North Korea is still facing a shortfall of one million tons of food this year.
Mr. Ragan, who lives in Pyongyang, says he has seen anecdotal indications that small economic reforms are starting to result in increased amounts of food on the market. However, he says many North Koreans do not have access to it.
"We see a lot more food - a lot of it grown in the DPRK, a lot of it coming across from China," he said. "But in general, I think there's a lot more available. But what's available is often at a very high price, and is completely unaffordable for your average Korean."
Some international observers in the past have accused North Korean authorities of reserving emergency food supplies for the military and for those closely associated with the government of leader Kim Jong Il, while the general population is underfed.
U.N. officials said their recent survey did not allow them to quantify or describe disparities in food distribution, since North Korean officials did not allow them to gather information about respondents' socioeconomic status.
Some critics have also noted that Pyongyang continues to ask for donations in the form of food and fuel, but is able to find the money to finance a nuclear weapons program.
North Korea has suffered severe food shortages starting in the 1990s, when the loss of Soviet subsidies, natural disasters, and general mismanagement caused its economy to collapse.
As many as a million North Koreans are estimated to have died of hunger since then, and the country has relied heavily on food donations procured through international organizations such as the World Food Program - which periodically issues requests for aid.
The United States and Japan have continued to send food aid, despite their demand that North Korea end its nuclear programs.