Fighting malnutrition in DPRK

Helping the most vulnerable to stay healthy

WFP Asia & Pacific
Dec 28, 2016 · 5 min read
Hyang Nam and 5-month-old Gwon Hyok. Photo: WFP/Photolibrary

Unforgiving winter weather has reached the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Bare trees dot the bleak landscape of South Hamgyong Province. The weak sun fails to temper the strong winds blowing cold gusts over recently harvested farmland. Whatever the weather, World Food Programme can continue to reach the most vulnerable people.

Snow and ice cover most roads, making it risky to drive without snow chains. Photo: WFP/Photolibrary

In Hamju County, an inconspicuous rural stretch in the shadow of Hamhŭng City, the WFP team visits 27-year old mother Kim Hyang Nam. Firewood is stacked neatly next to her front door, fuel for cooking as well as heating in the upcoming cold months. Hyang Nam welcomes the team with a smile and sits down on the floor, warmed by a traditional under-floor heating system. The 27-year-old mother cradles her 5-month-old son, Gwon Hyok.

Hyang Nam and her son at home. Photo: WFP/Photolibrary

His mother’s weathered hands reveal their daily exposure to the elements.

“My husband and I are both farmers and work at a cooperative farm close by. This year’s maize harvest is just finished,” Hyang Nam tells us. Maize comprises 70 percent of the food crops in Hamju, the other main crop being rice. As in most regions of DPR Korea, the 2016 harvest in Hamju is expected to be better than the previous year, but the figures paint a rosier picture than reality dictates. 2015 was one of the worst years ever in terms of food production and people’s food security is unlikely to improve much in 2017.

Hyang Nam collects her ration of WFP’s fortified cereals during monthly distributions at the nearby Public Distribution Center (PDC). Almost 70 percent of people in DPRK, 18 million in total, depend on this government-run system for almost all of their food. The rations are consistently lower than the government’s own target and are not enough to meet people’s daily needs.

Hyang Nam shows her stock of fortified cereals. Photo: WFP/Photolibrary

“Since I was six-months pregnant I started receiving fortified cereals,” Hyang Nam says, “I mostly use it to make bread, which I eat as an extra snack.” She happily shows the remaining stock of fortified cereals in her neatly organized kitchen. “My son is five-months old now. Next month I’ll go back to work and he will go to the nursery.”

The nursery she is referring to is a minute’s walk away from her home. Like other children in DPRK, Gwon Hyok will attend the nursery six days per week, and — like others — he will receive 80 percent of his food from the institution. WFP prioritises these young children, aged between zero and five-years old, and supplies nurseries with fortified biscuits and cereals.

L: Children during nap-time at a WFP-supported nursery in South Hamgyong province. R: Many Koreans, now in their mid-twenties remember eating WFP biscuits when they were younger. Photo: WFP/Mats Persson

Outside Hyang Nam’s home, bright red and green chili peppers hang in braids to dry in the cold winter air. The chilies are ready to be used for the family’s stash of kimchi, Korea’s most important side dish. The beloved dish is prepared by fermenting cabbage, chilies and fish or meat. Each family has their own special recipe and, judging from the amount of chili peppers, Hyang Nam’s kimchi is intended to be spicy. “Besides our stock of kimchi we also have maize for this winter,” she explains, “I first dry the maize and then grind it into flour to make noodles and bread.”

Her diet, comprised mainly of maize and kimchi, is an indicator of a wider, serious problem in DPR Korea: lack of dietary diversity. Many people, but particularly young children and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, face chronic malnutrition because of poor dietary diversity.

Bright red and green chili peppers hang in braids to dry in the cold winter air, outside Hyang Nam’s home. Photo: WFP/Photolibrary

WFP focuses on the first 1,000 days of a child’s life — starting in the mothers’ womb, and up to two years of age. This time period is a brief window of opportunity to provide important nutrients which are vital to a child’s growth. A child who does not receive sufficient nutrition during this time may suffer long-term mental and physical issues. If a baby like Gwon Hyok didn’t receive the right nutrients, he would grow up too short for his age, a condition called ‘stunting’. He would also face trouble learning in school, and other ailments throughout his life.

Children who are vulnerable to disease and malnutrition due to a lack of nutrients are brought to paediatric wards for treatment, and given WFP fortified food to improve their health.

Gwon Hyok at home with his mother. Photo: WFP/Photolibrary

Supporting the most vulnerable

At a hospital on the outskirts of Hamhŭng City, we are welcomed by the head of the pediatric ward, Dr. Kim, dressed in an impeccable white uniform with a matching hat. The temperature in the hospital is nearly as cold as outside. “All 40 beds in the ward are occupied,” the doctor explains, “Most cases at this moment are children with lung infections and diarrhea.” According to the World Health Organization, diarrhea is one of the leading causes of malnutrition in children under 5 years old.

L: Dr. Kim in the pediatric ward. R: In the hospital kitchen, the cook prepares fortified cereal bread for young patients. Photo: WFP/Photolibrary

To fight malnutrition, WFP provides fortified biscuits and cereals to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and to children in nurseries, kindergartens, paediatric wards, and orphanages. WFP food rations include crucial micronutrients, fats, and proteins to benefit babies and young children. These fortified biscuits and cereals are locally produced in 11 factories around the country.

Fortified biscuits being prepared. Photo: WFP/Photolibrary

In DPR Korea, WFP aims to reach 650,000 children and women each month, in a total of 60 counties across nine provinces. However, funding shortages threaten WFP’s vital nutrition support and might even lead to a complete break in assistance in May 2017. To produce fortified foods, WFP has to import the ingredients and, factoring in local transport and production, it can take between four to six months before the food is served on a child’s plate. New funding is therefore urgently needed.

FOOTNOTES: Story and Photos by Colin Kampschöer, WFP DPRK.

Read more about WFP’s work in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

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WFP Asia & Pacific

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Fighting hunger from Afghanistan to Fiji. Regional office based in Bangkok.

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme