EU to send aid to hungry North Koreans ‘eating grass’

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The European Union will send humanitarian aid to North Korea, whose citizens are suffering so badly from hunger that the consumption of grass has become widespread, the Commission announced yesterday (4 July).

The European Commission will provide emergency food aid to more than half a million people at risk of dying from serious malnutrition in North Korea, amid growing fears of a mounting hunger crisis, the EU executive announced.

"Increasingly desperate and extreme measures are being taken by the hard-hit North Koreans, including the widespread consumption of grass," a press release states.

Asked by EURACTIV how the Commission got word of the humanitarian situation in such a secretive country (see 'Background'), David Sharrock, spokesperson for Humanitarian Affairs Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, made clear that Pyongyang had in fact asked Brussels for help.

Apparently, the Commission also managed to send an investigation team to the country in June. EU representatives visited three provinces (North Pyongan, South Hamgyong and Kangwon), as well as several counties, hospitals, clinics, nurseries, farms and individual households.

The mission confirmed the severity of the food situation. Reportedly, state-distributed food rations, upon which two thirds of the North Korean population depend, have been severely cut in recent months from 400g of cereal per person per day in early April to 150g in June: less than 400kcal. This represents a fifth of average daily nutritional requirements and the equivalent of a small bowl of rice.

Averting risk of food diversion

Sharrock also explained that a system has been devised to ensure that EU assistance, which will be worth 10 million euro and is intended to reach 650,000 people, will actually reach its intended recipients rather than being misused by the authorities.

Strict safeguards and checks have been agreed with the World Food Programme (WFP) in order to mitigate the risk of food being diverted, he explained.

According to sources, the reasons for this year's hunger problems are related to poor economic management, exacerbated by interruptions to traditional aid from China and South Korea. Indeed, with tensions still running high since military skirmishes between the two countries late last year, South Korea reacted to the EU's decision to help by declaring that it would not be following suit.  

Bad weather affecting crops has reportedly been another factor.

This is not the first time that the Commission has provided much needed humanitarian aid to North Korea.

From 1995 to 2008, the EU executive provided around €124 million in humanitarian aid in North Korea to supply emergency food, improve health services and provide access to clean water and sanitation. Also, to help address North Korea's structural food insecurity, between 2007 and 2010 the Commission has invested €35 million in long-term nutrition projects in the impoverished country.

North Korea, officially named the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is a communist country and an autarchy governed in a dictatorial manner by Kim Jong-il, son of Kim Il-sung, who has led the country from its founding in 1948 until his death.

It has been divided from prosperous South Korea since 1945. The present border, which is the most heavily fortified in the world, was fixed following the Korean War of 1950. A peace treaty was never signed.

In 2009 tensions between North and South Korea grew, as Pyongyang pursued a nuclear and ballistic missile programme. These tensions boiled over when North Korea sank the South Korean warship Chenoan in March 2010. As a result, Seoul severed all ties with Pyongyang. In November 2010, North Korea attacked South Korea's Yeopnpyeong island, triggering international outrage.

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