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UN Warns Higher Food Prices in N. Korea Could Mean More Go Hungry - 2004-08-18

The United Nations is warning that changing economic conditions in North Korea are driving food prices beyond the reach of millions of people there.

The World Food Program says hunger and malnutrition are endemic to vast portions of North Korea.

The U.N. agency says it has enough food to provide assistance to the 6.5 million people considered most at risk in the communist country. That group includes pregnant women and nursing mothers, infants and the elderly.

But it warns the international assistance, even coupled with some support from Pyongyang, is still not enough to meet national demand.

As a result, the WFP's Richard Ragan warns, market prices for food are rising sharply. A kilogram of rice costs five times more today than this time last year. But wages remain stagnant and Mr. Ragan says many families cannot keep pace with prices. "Some families are spending as much as 80 percent of their disposable income on food. That's a problem," he said, "and if they're unable to generate enough revenue to buy food on the local market and the price keeps rising then they all of a sudden become vulnerable."

Economists blame the inflation on North Korea's tentative steps toward a market economy following the collapse of its state-run economy in the 1990s.

Farmers, though still required to fill certain quotas, can sell excess crops for personal profit.

Many urban families can also earn extra income from small enterprises on the side.

But Mr. Ragan says there are millions of people who have no way to supplement their income. And it is the urban poor, without access to farmland, who are going hungry.

"Unfortunately people who live in the urban environment, who have worked in the industrial sector and who've been almost wholly dependent on the public distribution system, are the ones having the most difficult time right now," he said.

Mr. Ragan says the benefits of economic reforms are often initially unevenly distributed so some people gain ground, while others wind up worse off.

In time, he says, the economic reforms will bear fruit. But for the next few years at least, only international assistance will help feed the poor.