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19 July 2012


Democratic People's Republic of Korea: Starvation and malnutrition, including periods of food shortages from 1990 to 2012

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa

1. Background

A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) document indicates that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) has "only" one million hectares of arable land and needs to import 1.25 million tonnes of food (Jan. 2011, para. 5). Human Rights Watch indicates in a 2006 report that, according to food experts, 30 percent of North Korean harvests could be lost every year due to a lack of machinery, plagues, proper transportation and storage facilities (May 2006, 17). According to the UN Resident Coordinator's Office in North Korea, agriculture is a major component of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and it has declined from 30 to 20 percent between 2000 and 2012 (UN 29 May 2012, 4). The UN Resident Coordinator’s Office also indicates that the central, south-western and south-eastern parts of the country are considered the "cereal bowl" for producing most of the cereal crops, as opposed to north-eastern provinces that are the "most vulnerable and food insecure" parts of the country (ibid., 14). Human Rights Watch notes in its World Report 2010 for North Korea that the country lacks "high quality seeds, fuel, fertilizer, advanced agricultural technologies, and even decent storage facilities" (2010). A 2010 report from the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea indicates that the government reinstated the "public distribution system" (PDS), the main source of food for most people, in 2005 after it clamped down on the market system (UN 17 Feb. 2010).

The UN Resident Coordinator's Office indicates that around 16 million people out of the 24.1 million population of the country relay on the PDS (UN 29 May 2012, 2, 14) or two thirds of the population (Reuters 7 Oct. 2011). According to North Korean officials consulted by Reuters, the daily food ration standard per day is 700 grams of cereals; however, after the winter of 2011, the ration was reduced to 400 grams, 150 grams in June 2011, and raised to 200 grams in July of the same year (ibid.). A 2011 report by the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and UNICEF indicates that by March 2011 nearly six million people were vulnerable to food insecurity (UN 24 Mar. 2011).

In correspondence with the Research Directorate, the Executive Director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea indicated that the impact of food shortages has been "severe" on the health of the North Korean population due to nutritional deficiencies (Committee for Human Rights in North Korea 6 July 2012). Areas where the lower "Songbun" live were particularly affected by the food crisis (ibid.). Songbun refers to a "classification system" that divides the North Korean population into a loyal or "core" class, a "wavering" class, and a "hostile" class (Collins 6 June 2012, 1; Asia Times 3 Dec. 2011). According to Human Rights Watch, this classification system determines access to necessities such as food and medicine, as well as education and employment, and those in the "hostile" class receive less priority from the state (May 2006, 6). According to the Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, this practice still continues (6 July 2012). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, the North East Asia Deputy Project Director of International Crisis Group indicated that for those whose loyalty to the government is "questionable," and for children and the elderly, the food situation "can be and is very dire" (International Crisis Group 7 July 2012).

The UN indicates that "[n]egotiating access in [North Korea] has been and remains a long and difficult process," and those parts of the country that do not have the presence of humanitarian agencies remain without assistance from the UN and NGOs (UN 29 May 2012, 6).

2. Periods of Food Shortages

Sources indicate that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North Korean government initiated a "Let's eat two meals a day" campaign in 1991 to face the increased reduction in external food assistance (Committee for Human Rights in North Korea 6 July 2012; AlertNet 19 Dec. 2011). According to the Deputy Project Director of International Crisis Group, since the early 1990s North Korea has faced "serious food insecurity" (7 July 2012).

Sources indicate that a famine occurred in the mid-1990s and killed an estimated one million people (Reuters 7 Oct. 2011; Human Rights Watch 12 Oct. 2006). According to Human Rights Watch, this famine was caused by factors such as: the state's monopoly on the food market; the "discriminatory" distribution of food that favours particular sectors of the population, such as the ruling class and the armed forces; the diminishing agricultural output; and environmental disasters (ibid. May 2006, 1). For example, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, reports that in the summer of 1995 and in 1996 the country experienced floods which were coupled with soil erosion and river silting caused by deforestation (2005, 15).

Reuters reports that, according to figures "impossible to verify" from the People's Committee, during the summer of 2010, storms destroyed 80 percent of maize in the "essential food provider" province of South Hwanghae (Reuters 7 Oct. 2011). Sources report that the agricultural season of 2011 was threatened by weather conditions (ibid.; UN 29 May 2012, 7). Reuters reports that, according to the People's Committee, during winter of that year, 65 percent of barley, wheat, and potato crops in the province of South Hwanghae were frozen (Reuters 7 Oct. 2011). Sources also indicate that in the summer of that year torrential rains affected various provinces (ibid.; UN 29 May 2012, 8), damaging nearly 60,000 hectares of farmland (ibid.). The UN indicates that "a vast number of people suffered prolonged food deprivation from May through to September 2011" (ibid., 7). The UNDP also indicated in January 2011 that drought and insect damage still caused "problems" (Jan. 2011, para. 5). As a food security analyst at Médecins sans frontières indicated to Reuters, "even minor natural disasters could have catastrophic consequences" (7 Oct. 2011).

3. Impact on Health in North Korea

According to the Deputy Project Director of International Crisis Group, "[t]he effects on public health are stunning… [s]tunting and malnourishment are evident in all regions" of North Korea that the organization visited in the summer 2012 (7 July 2012). AlertNet reports that North Koreans "are forced to eat fewer and smaller meals and gather wild foods" from April to October, just before the harvests in the fall (19 Dec. 2011).

In 2009, the Central Bureau of Statistics of North Korea undertook the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS 2009) with the support of UNICEF to "provide up-to-date information on the situation of children and women" in the country (Democratic People's Republic of Korea Dec. 2010, 12). The survey found that 19 percent of children under age five were moderately underweight and 4 percent were severely underweight (ibid.). It also found that 32 percent of children are moderately stunted, or too short for their age, and 5 percent are moderately wasted, or too thin for their age (ibid.).

The MICS 2009 indicates that nearly 19 percent of children under the age of 5 are moderately underweight and 32.4 percent are moderately stunted (DPKR Dec. 2010, 31). A UNICEF screening in the 25 most food insecure counties in four northern provinces indicated that severe acute malnutrition was moderate in 14.6 percent of the cases and 2.8 percent was severe, up from 4.7 and 0.5 percent respectively as indicated in a 2009 survey (UN 29 May 2012, 8). In November 2011, WFP conducted a mid-upper arm circumference screening in 696 children aged 6 to 59 months and the results showed a global acute malnutrition rate of 12.5 percent and a severe acute malnutrition of 1.6 percent (ibid., 9). For children under two years old the percentages were 18.8 and 4.5 respectively, which is considered "high" (ibid.). According to the Complex Emergency Database (CE-DAT), an international initiative at the School of Public Health of the Université catholique de Louvain in Brussels that monitors and assess the health conditions of populations in emergency situations (CE-DAT n.d.a), the children that are identified as been affected by global acute malnutrition are "all children falling under 80 [percent] of the median in the index of weight-for-height median, and/or having Oedema, as compared to the median weight of children of the same height in the reference population" (ibid. n.d.b). A global acute malnutrition rate of more that 10 percent in a population generally indicates an "emergency" (ibid.).

Reuters reports that, according to UN health indicators, the life expectancy of North Koreans is 11 years shorter than South Koreans "due mainly to malnutrition" (7 Oct. 2011).

4. Tests to Determine Malnutrition in the Past

With regard to evaluations in Canada to determine if a person experienced starvation in the past, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa indicated in an interview with the Research Directorate that it is "very difficult" to determine this in a test since indicators that could be attributed to starvation could also be the product of disease (Assistant Professor 9 July 2012). He explained that these tests provide the current health status of a person and that deficiency in nutrients does not necessarily mean that it is linked to starvation (ibid.). He concluded that even when there is a suspicion of a past exposure to nutrient deficiency, it is difficult to determine exactly when it happened (ibid.).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


AlertNet. 19 December 2011. "North Korea Hunger: The Secret Famine." <> [Accessed 6 July 2012]

Asia Times. 3 December 2011. Andrei Lankov. "North Korea's New Class System." <> [Accessed 18 July 2012]

Assistant Professor. Faculty of Health and Sciences, University of Ottawa. 9 July 2012. Personal interview with the Research Directorate.

Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. 6 July 2012. Correspondence to the Research Directorate from the Executive Director.

_____. 2005. Hunger and Human Rights: The Politics of Famine in North Korea. <> [Accessed 18 July 2012]

Complex Emergency Database (CE-DAT). N.d.a. "About Us." <> [Accessed 29 June 2012]

_____. N.d.b. "Glossary." <> [Accessed 29 June 2012]

Collins, Robert. 6 June 2012. Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea's Social Classification System. Washington, DC: The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. <> [Accessed 6 July 2012]

Democratic People's Republic of Korea. December 2010. Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2009. <> [Accessed 29 June 2012]

Human Rights Watch. 2010. World Report 2010. "North Korea." <> [Accessed 19 July 2012]

_____. 12 October 2006. "North Korea: Ending Food Aid would Deepen Hunger." <> [Accessed 6 July 2012]

_____. May 2006. A Matter of Survival: The North Korean Government’s Control of Food and the Risk of Hunger. <> [Accessed 29 June 2012]

International Crisis Group. 7 July 2012. Correspondence to the Research Directorate from the North East Asia Deputy Project Director.

Reuters. 7 October 2011. Tim Large. "Special Report: Crisis Grips North Korean Rice Bowl." <> [Accessed 27 June 2012]

United Nations (UN). 29 May 2012. UN Resident Coordinator's Office in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Overview of Needs and Assistance: The Democratic People's Republic of Korea. <> [Accessed 29 June 2012]

_____. 24 March 2011. World Food Programme (WFP), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). Rapid Food Security Assessment Mission to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. <> [Accessed 18 July 2012]

_____. January 2011. UN Development Programme (UNDP). Country Programme for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (2011-2015). <> [Accessed 29 June 2012]

_____. 17 February 2010. UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Vitit Muntarbhorn. <> [Accessed 18 July 2012]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: Attempts to contact representatives from the following organizations were unsuccessful: Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, World Health Organization, UN World Food Programme.

Internet sites, including: Amnesty International; Canada – Canadian International Development Agency;; Factiva; Médecins sans frontières; The National Academies Press; openDemocracy; United Nations – High Commissioner for Refugees, World Food Programme; United States – Agency for International Development, Department of State.