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Malnutrition Rate Drops in North Korea - 2003-02-20

U.N. officials say malnutrition has dropped significantly in communist North Korea in the past four years and are calling on donor nations to boost food aid so famine does not return.

The United Nations and the North Korea government have released a new survey showing a marked cut in malnutrition since 1998. The number of underweight children in North Korea fell from more than 60 percent four years ago to just 21 percent and chronic malnutrition has dropped by a third.

Officials say foreign food aid is clearly making an impact, but warn that gains could quickly be wiped out if foreign donations fall off.

"We are very, very concerned that the recent fall-off in contributions could put all of that success in jeopardy and we would see malnutrition rates climb back again," said Richard Bridle, who works for the U.N. Children's Agency, UNICEF, in Pyongyang.

Due to a marked decrease in aid donations, the WFP has had to cut in half the number of North Koreans it feeds to now almost 3.5 million. U.N. officials say the fact that food aid is working should encourage donors to give more not less since at least a quarter of North Korea's 22 million people are still in need.

The current international dispute over North Korea's illegal nuclear programs could impact future aid as well as Western concerns that North Korea has been diverting food donations to feed its huge standing army. It is not clear how much food may be diverted since Mr. Bridle notes U.N. officials continue to be frustrated with North Korean restrictions on their ability monitor food deliveries.

Flood, drought and other natural disasters brought famine to North Korea in the 1990's, and the situation was made worse by mismanagement of the nation's economy. Foreign estimates of the number of people who perished in the famine run from hundreds of thousands to a couple of million.