U.N. Report: More than 45% of North Koreans undernourished

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SEOUL, Jan. 21 (UPI) — More than 45% of North Koreans are undernourished, the highest proportion in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a United Nations report released this week.

The report, which was co-authored by U.N. agencies including the World Food Program and the Food Aid Organization, studied a number of indicators, including food insecurity, childhood stunting and wasting and child minimal acceptable diet in the region.

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The United Nations defines undernourishment as habitual food consumption being “insufficient to provide the dietary energy levels that are required to maintain a normal active and healthy life.”

North Korea’s prevalence of undernourishment for the years 2017-2019 topped countries such as Afghanistan and Timor-Leste, whose recorded levels were around 30%.

In North Korea, just 28.6% of children receive the U.N.’s minimum acceptable diet, which is a measure of dietary diversity and meal frequency, the report added.

North Korea has faced chronic food shortages, but 2020 brought additional economic hardships due to prolonged border closings for COVID-19 prevention and severe weather conditions.

Pyongyang took early action against the pandemic and sealed its borders last January, disrupting economic activity with its main partner, China. Trade activity between the neighbors plunged by an estimated 80% in 2020, according to the Korea International Trade Association.

The isolated country was also battered by a series of late-summer typhoons that caused flooding and major damage to buildings, roads and crops. Last month, South Korea’s agriculture ministry estimated that North Korea’s combined crop production fell by 5.2% in 2020, due largely to the poor weather conditions.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un addressed the food shortages that have plagued the country in his closing address at a ruling Worker’s Party congress last week, saying the government “would continue to focus on agricultural production and solve the people’s food problem.”

“The new five-year plan must be more active in agriculture and increase national investment to unconditionally achieve grain production goals,” Kim said.

Some 351 million people in the Asia-Pacific region are undernourished, accounting for roughly half the world’s total, according to the U.N. report.

The total number of undernourished people in the region fell by 18 percent between 2009 and 2019, the report said, but warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could “erase many of the gains made in earlier years.”