A new report by the World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization finds more than one-quarter of North Korea's population will need international food assistance next year. This conclusion is based on a joint-assessment mission by the two U.N. agencies in September and October.
North Korea enjoyed a bumper crop this year, the best harvest in 10 years. Despite this, the United Nations agencies say the country still will have a substantial food deficit in 2005.
A spokesman for the World Food Program, Simon Pluess, says outside assistance will be needed to support more than one-quarter of North Korea's nearly 24 million inhabitants. He says the country will have to import 900 thousand tons of cereal next year.
"There are about 16 million North Koreans who receive subsidized cereals from the government public distribution system," said Mr. Pluess. "But, these subsidized cereals cover only about half of their nutritional needs and the rest of the people have to buy on the private markets at very expensive costs."
The World Food Program says prices in private markets have risen dramatically since the introduction of economic reforms in mid-2002. For example, it says a kilo of rice costs about one-third of what an average wage earner makes in one month.
Mr. Pluess says a typical family spends about one-third of its monthly income buying state-subsidized maize and rice. Another third goes for non-food essentials, such as rent, heating and clothing. And the remainder, he says, is not enough to buy whatever else is needed on the private market.
He says this lack of purchasing power is having a detrimental effect on people's health and well-being.
"Much of the population, they consume very little proteins and suffer from serious dietary deficiencies," he added. "At this period of the year, fresh vegetables and fruits are very expensive and hard to get."
Mr. Pluess says the situation is particularly precarious for children in kindergartens, nurseries, orphanages and primary schools. He says pregnant and nursing women as well as elderly people also are at risk.