PYONGYANG, North Korea – A funding crunch for aid to North Korea has become so severe 500,000 rural schoolchildren are as of this month no longer receiving assistance and aid to millions more could soon dry up, according to a report obtained by The Associated Press. The report underscores the flight of international donors to countries with less political baggage and more willingness to let aid workers do their jobs.
Just a short walk from one of the World Food Programme's two still-functioning food factories in the heart of Pyongyang, children snack on ice cream and sweets at street-side stalls. Well-heeled guests in luxury hotels sip on cappuccinos while white-hatted chefs back in the kitchen whip up pizzas smothered in cheese and sausage. This is the face North Korea prefers the world see. If there is hunger here, it is anything but obvious.
But while the North has come a long way since the famine and economic breakdowns believed to have killed hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s, it continues to suffer widespread food shortages made worse by frequent natural disasters, limited economic growth and the lack of seeds, fertilizers and fuel, according to an internal, preliminary version of the report being prepared by WFP for current or prospective donors.
The report, noting statistics that every third North Korean child is stunted and every fifth child is underweight, said it is "very concerned" about the long-term physical and intellectual development of malnourished children. North Korean officials were not available to immediately comment on the contents of the report.
The report also highlighted concern with WFP's own funding crisis.
Last year, WFP drew up a $200 million, two-year program targeting 2.4 million children and pregnant or nursing mothers. Because of low funding, that was scaled back to 1.63 million children and mothers, and even that appears to be too ambitious.
To meet its targets, WFP needs about $8 million a month. But with only $3 million a month available, it now has only enough resources to produce key food assistance until June.
Five of seven factories supplying high-nutrient biscuits — the ones that previously went to the 500,000 schoolchildren — were closed in March.
"It's like a drop of water on a hot stone," Dierk Stegen, WFP representative in Pyongyang, told The Associated Press. "We are planning from month to month."
Although Stegen said he is optimistic new pledges will be made, the coming months will be crucial.
May in North Korea marks the beginning of what aid organizations call the lean season. It lasts until October.
About 16 million North Koreans rely on state-provided rations of cereals. According to the WFP report, North Koreans have been getting larger rations of rice, potatoes and corn over the past two years. In March, the amount provided under the North's Public Distribution System was 410 grams per day, per person. North Korea hopes to increase that to 573 grams.
That's not much. The average American eats about 2,000 grams of food each day.
The bigger problem, however, isn't how much North Koreans eat, but what. According to the WFP report, the average North Korean diet is alarmingly low on fats, proteins, vegetables and fruits.
To cope, particularly in the lean season, people eat fewer meals, rely on the help of relatives with access to produce in rural areas, gather wild edible plants or buy whatever they can find and afford in local markets, a practice that is frowned upon but grudgingly accepted by the government.
For many, that still isn't enough.
Stunting from chronic malnutrition is as high as 40 percent in some areas, according to the WFP.
Even so, broad international sanctions now in place on the North make aid efforts dauntingly complex and criticism of the country's human rights record — including a scathing report issued recently by the United Nations — have made donors less willing to chip in.
"Basically all aid agencies are struggling to find funding for the DPRK program, WFP included," said Katharina Zellweger, a visiting fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation. For many years she was in charge of the Swiss aid program in North Korea, formally called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"We know that feeding babies during their first 1,000 days is crucial, as this is the most important period for the child to develop," Zellweger said. "So stopping this vital support presents a grim picture with long-term implications."
Sixty percent of WFP donations come from governments, but since 2008, amid heightening tensions over the North's nuclear and missile programs, aid from the U.S., South Korea and Japan — all major contributors to WFP — has evaporated. Washington agreed to 240,000 tons of direct food aid for North Korea in February last year, but that fell through when the North launched a rocket two months later.
"It can be a tough sell because change in North Korea is going to come slowly — quick changes, as in Myanmar, are just easier to see and support," said Andray Abrahamian, executive director of the Choson Exchange, an NGO that focuses on building business skills in the North. "Ultimately, their system is very stable — changes there will come from within. So what can we do to support positive decision-making? I don't think it's through pressure: the DPRK has shown a tremendous capacity to turn inward and we want to discourage that."
Opponents of engagement with North Korea have long argued that aid is siphoned off to the North's military and nuclear weapons programs, ends up lining the pockets of officials or elites and serves to prop up the ruling regime by easing the pressure on it to change priorities and deal wholeheartedly with its own domestic economic problems.
Aid workers say their role is neither to support nor undermine the North Korean government.
"It is precisely in countries where the government is unable or unwilling to feed its people that food aid is required," said retired WFP official Erich Weingartner. "The question we should be asking is whether the international community is willing to risk the lives of millions in order to topple this regime."
To ensure its assistance is directed as narrowly as possible to those who need it, WFP is focused on providing specialized food products called "Super Cereals" — blends of powdered milk with corn, soy, cereal or rice — for infants and their mothers, along with the nutrient-rich biscuits for older children.
WFP Pyongyang representative Stegen said the products are distributed to 18,000 institutions and private households throughout the North. He said WFP conducts 250 monitoring visits each month.
North Korea is no worse off than many other places donors have to choose from. Stunting, for example, is more of a problem in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and Nepal.
By WFP's own estimation, the most pressing "hunger hotspot" emergencies in the world today are the Central African Republic, Syria and South Sudan. Eighty percent of WFP's budget goes to just 10 nations. North Korea is not one of them.
Pyongyang itself has never been fully on board with the aid effort. Although Stegen said improvements have been made — and could be better if funding was made available to hire more staff — WFP and other aid organizations continue to face restrictions on movement, residency and measures to monitor whether their assistance has gotten to the people it was intended for.
North Korea's wariness of outside interference — particularly from the United States and its allies — dates back to the 1950-53 Korean War. Seeing itself as still as a nation under siege from Washington, and unable to rely on the largesse of its communist patrons of the Cold War, it has grown increasingly isolated. International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program have accelerated the North's alienation from the international community.
North Korea's welcome mat for humanitarian groups has always been notoriously slippery.
Once North Korea's leaders determined they had managed to ride out the "Arduous March" famine years of the mid-1990s, they tightened the screws on international aid groups. Oxfam, CARE, Action Against Hunger and Doctors Without Borders all pulled out.
Officials in Pyongyang respond to questions about the value of international aid with ambivalence.
"Our system is an independent national economy, applying the requirements of the Juche Idea," said economist Kim Ung Ho of the Economic Institute of the North Korean Academy of Social Sciences, referring to the North's often-stated public policy of self-reliance. "This means depending on our own power, technology, and resources, we will make and use what our people need. This is our principle. ... What we need, we solve by ourselves."
Increasingly, that is what international donors are suggesting they do.
Eric Talmadge is the AP's bureau chief in Pyongyang. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/EricTalmadge.