Photo: KCNA via Reuters
Photo: KCNA via Reuters

There’s a conception that people in North Korea are starving, and that their children have less access to nourishment than kids in other developing Asia countries.

Indeed, when president Barack Obama was asked about the effects of greater sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea last year, he repeated a mantra widely associated with the authoritarian regime: “The country can’t really even feed its own people” and that “Over time, a regime like this will collapse.”

But several reports and academic studies show that North Korea’s food situation is stable and on par with – or even better than – some other nations in Asia.

Professor Hazel Smith, Director of the International Institute of Korean Studies at Cranfield University in the UK, concluded in a new research paper that levels of severe wasting – people being underweight for their height because of acute malnutrition – is lower in North Korea than in a number of other low-income countries and equal to those in other developing countries in Asia.

North Korea is “far from the outlier state that is commonly presented in scholarly, policy and global media analysis,” her report found.

Other North Korea watchers have also stated that the food situation is stable, dependence on international food aid is declining and that the issue of starvation is in the past.

“One of the most commonly cited clichés is that North Korea is a ‘destitute, starving country.’ However, starvation has long since ceased to be a fact of life in North Korea,” Andrei Lankov, a professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University in Seoul, wrote in an opinion piece.

Globally, some 795 million people do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. That’s about one in nine people on earth, according to the United Nation’s World Food Program. Asia is the continent with the most hungry people, and accounts for two-thirds of the total. While the percentage in southern Asia has fallen in recent years, it has increased slightly in western Asia.

Undernourishment is most damaging for children. It can lower the child’s IQ, reduces productivity and increase risk of diet-related non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

While malnutrition rates among children have decreased in North Korea in the past decade, about three out of 10 children remains chronically malnourished or “stunted,” meaning they are too short for their age, according to a joint nutrition monitoring and modeling project by the World Health Organization, World Bank and Unicef.

Watch: Fewer hungry children in Asia charted in graphs

But even if these are horrific numbers, they fall far behind those of the world’s fastest-growing major economy – India. There, almost half of all children under five – or about 58 million – are stunted due to chronic undernutrition, the UN project’s data show. India accounts for more than 3 out of every 10 stunted children in the world.

“The equivalent figures are much worse in India [than North Korea],” Smith wrote in an email.

Also the so-called wasting rate is far worse in India. In North Korea, 4% of children under five fall into that category. In India the number is 20%.

According to the World Bank, India has the largest numbers of children suffering from malnutrition, especially in rural areas. The percentage of children who are severely underweight is almost five times higher among children whose mothers have no education, Unicef said.

“India produces enough food and has at its disposal enough arable land not only to feed its population, but also to export. It produces some of the largest volumes of food products. Yet millions live without two square meals per day,” professor Jean-Pierre Lehmann and Nina Ninkovic wr0te in the Globalist.

Indonesia also has higher levels of hungry children than North Korea, with 36.4% of under fives – 8.7 million – suffering from chronic malnutrition.

An Indonesian child, Rian, 17 months, suffering from malnutrition, lies on his bed in a hospital in Ciawi. An Indonesian child, Rian, 17 months, suffering from malnutrition, lies on his bed in a hospital in Ciawi, West Java, June 16, 2005. The Jakarta City Health Agency reported that more than 8,000 children under five years old are suffering from malnutrition. REUTERS/Dadang Tri - RTREK1R
Indonesia is among Asian countries that have higher rates of malnutrition among under-fives. Photo: Reuters

In the Philippines, the stunting rate for children under five increased to 33.5% last year, according to a recent survey by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology. The rate for children aged 0-2 swelled to the highest level in 10 years.

“Hunger, malnutrition is a man-made problem,” Ned Olney, country director of Save the Children in the Philippines, told the Rappler online news forum. “We create this situation and it’s completely preventable.”

Also Nepal, one of the poorest countries in South Asia, is notoriously food insecure. Half of the country’s children are stunted.

In the 2015 Global Hunger Index report, India and North Korea are ranked next to each other, ahead of Afghanistan, Timor-Leste and Pakistan, with almost identical scores in levels of hunger. Both were considered having a “serious” level of hunger, while seven countries had “alarming” levels. In the 2013 ranking, India was ranked “alarming” and North Korea “serious.”

Also in terms of the mortality rate, North Korea is not unique. A 2013 South Korean study reported that the DPRK mortality rate was not exceptionally high in global comparative terms. It commented that:

“The age-standardized death rate of North Korea was 858 out of 100,000. This value was higher than South Korea’s 436 or China’s 731, but it was lower than those of fellow SEAR [South-East Asia region] countries like India’s 1,147 and Indonesia’s 961 and around the same level as Egypt’s 860 and Jordan’s 873, which have been reported to be countries with relatively higher income levels than North Korea.

“Globally, the age-standardized death rate of North Korea ranked in the middle among all of the WHO member states and was the second lowest in the South-East Asia Region countries following that of Maldives.”

In fact, the major killers in North Korea in 2013 were non-communicable diseases including cancers and cardiovascular diseases, “which are commonly understood as diseases of wealthy countries,” Smith writes.

She doesn’t aim to paint a rosy picture of North Korea. During the famine between 1994 and 1998 hundred-of-thousands, possibly even millions – estimates vary widely – died from starvation or hunger-related illnesses. The country today struggles with undernourishment, mainly as a result of bad leadership.

But she hopes that the real problems of North Korean politics, economy and society can be addressed in a more coherent and better informed manner. She wants the research to contribute to a shift in North Korean Studies from securitized, opinion-based discussions, in which all North Koreans are either “victims or villains,” towards careful, qualified, data-based analysis of societal change in the post-famine era of the DPRK.

“The health and nutritional status of mothers and infants, and others, remains far from satisfactory. Yet, tragically, the poor health and inadequate nutritional status of many in the population in the DPRK is far from exceptional world-wide,” she said.

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