World News

U.N. says North Korea food problems remain pressing

BEIJING (Reuters) - Large numbers of children in impoverished and isolated North Korea are suffering from malnutrition and food aid to the communist state is insufficient, a senior U.N. official said on Thursday.

“I saw a lot of children already losing the battle against malnutrition,” Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP), told reporters in Beijing after returning from Pyongyang.

“Their bodies and minds are stunted and so we really feel the need there ... We want to make sure we reach the most vulnerable children,” she added.

Sheeran, who arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday, said she met nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam and toured food factories.

“We are most concerned because our program is only 20 percent funded. We are having pipeline breaks in the supply,” she said, without elaborating.

Flooding over the past few years pushed down domestic production in the North, which faces chronic food shortage and has relied on aid from South Korea, China and the U.N. World Food Program.

But wide-ranging sanctions on North Korea due to its nuclear program have hampered efforts to attract food aid.

A famine in the 1990s killed an estimated 1 million of the North’s then population of 22 million people.

Up to 6.2 million out of North Korea’s current population of 23 million need food aid, the WFP said in March, adding that they were only able to reach 1.5 million, mainly young children and women, due to lack of funds.

Reporting by Maxim Duncan and K.J. Kwon; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Sugita Katyal