REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- The State Department’s announcement that North Korea would halt nuclear activities in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of U.S. food aid was welcomed by aid groups that have long struggled to raise money to feed hungry people under an unpopular regime.
The assistance announced Wednesday may help alleviate what they called a “nutrition crisis” that, while far less severe than a full-blown famine, could still put vulnerable groups such as hospital patients, children and the elderly at significant risk of malnutrition-related illness.
“It’s still too early to know the full implications of the latest news on our operations,” said Marcus Prior, spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program in Asia. “We’re encouraged by any measures that may lead to increased humanitarian assistance.”
North Koreans are still reeling from a particularly bad year in 2011 -- potato and barley fields were frozen during a harsh winter in late 2010. Flooding last summer then destroyed fields of rice and maize. The number of children admitted to North Korean hospitals for malnutrition as much as doubled.
“The situation has improved on the level of food availability, but we remain concerned about the level of nutrition, especially for children in poorer areas,” Prior said.
While the World Food Program, or WFP, has adequate funding to help feed North Korea’s most at-risk populations over the next three months, Prior said, it may not have enough to continue working through the “lean season” from June to August, when food supplies dwindle before the fall harvest.
Over 90% of U.S. food aid to North Korea has been channeled through the WFP since 1996, according to a 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service. Nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, deliver much of the remainder.
“The U.S. NGOs welcome the U.S. government’s current consideration of how to meet these pressing needs,” MercyCorps, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, said in a statement on Wednesday.
Most U.S. food aid to North Korea comes in the form of “fortified blended food” and nutritional supplements -- biscuits, enhanced milk formula and flakes that, when boiled in water, create a type of porridge. The United Nations has argued that these supplements are less likely to be diverted to the country’s military and elites than sacks of grain or rice.
Experts say that despite its continued reliance on foreign aid, the North Korean government has done little to address the country’s deep-rooted food security issues.
Nearly two-thirds of the population is dependent on the government-run Public Distribution System. During the lean season in 2011, daily rations dropped down to below 7 ounces, roughly equivalent to a bowl of cereal.
“The North Korea calculation is ‘What do we need to do to survive and maintain control?’ ” Andrew Natsios, a professor at Georgetown University and former official at the USAID global assistance organization, said in an interview last month. “They’re not reforming the system to provide more food because they believe it will reduce their control over society.”
Natsios added that linking nuclear weapons with food aid may be a dangerous bargain. Because of the connection, North Korean officials may believe that displays of nuclear bravado will result in larger shipments of aid.
“That's not what we're saying, but that’s what they're hearing, and they have a good reason for interpreting it that way,” he said.
Wednesday’s announcement promised only continued negotiations, and details about the aid deal have not yet been released.
Almost two decades of chronic food shortages has left up to one-third of North Korea’s 24 million people stunted from malnutrition. Average North Koreans are 2 to 5 inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts.
-- Jonathan Kaiman
Photo: A woman walks past fields carrying her baby on her back at a collective farm near Suriwon, North Korea, in October 2011. The North suffered a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands and chronic food shortages persist in the country. Credit: David Guttenfelder / Associated Press