Accessibility links

Top UN Official Visit Provides Rare Glimpse of North Korea's Hungry

World Food Program executive director Josette Sheeran speaks during the press conference ahead of a rare visit to North Korea. 28 Oct. 2010. A recent UN report warned North Korea is heading for a new food crisis.

North Korea normally keeps tight control of its public image, presenting a strong face to the world despite its economic destitution. But a recent visit by the head of the World Food Program shows how the country continues to struggle to feed its people.

WFP executive director Josette Sheeran says her recent visit was different from the usual state-sponsored tours that foreigners are typically taken on when they visit Pyongyang.

"I saw many children that are already losing the battle against malnutrition, and their bodies and minds are stunted," she said.

Sheeran returned to China Thursday after spending three days in Pyongyang. She told reporters she met with senior North Korean officials and visited an orphanage, a factory and a hospital where children were being treated for malnutrition.

"We really feel the need there for the special fortified food for the children is very strong, and that we want to make sure we're reaching the most vulnerable children," she said.

The country struggles with chronic food shortages, but severe flooding in the north this summer has aggravated the problem. A famine in the 1990s is believed to have killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans.

The United Nations food agency has been providing aid to North Korea since that famine, but Sheeran's visit was the first by a World Food Program chief in nearly a decade.