Growing Problem: Arrested Development

By | March 18, 2013 | No Comments

Children, Mothers, Crops - all related and all impacted.  Image via JRJ.com.cn China Financial Portal

Children, mothers,  and crops: All related and all impacted. Image via JRJ.com.cn, China Financial Portal

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) Central Bureau of Statistics recently released their Final Report of the National Nutrition Survey 2012.  Every North Korea watcher should read the report because of its implications for: 1) governance; 2) an indication of the state of Pyongyang-province relations; 3) an indication of Pyongyang’s war readiness;  4) re-discovering some of the costs and structural issues that will surface after re-unification; and 5) humanitarian and capacity building programs that might help DPRK address issues on their own.

In terms of governance, this survey provides some important scoping data for DPRK’s decision-makers. Not least of which is the relatively increased transparency the DPRK provided to international organizations:  The survey was done with technical assistance from the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization using established methodologies and trained personnel to collect updated information on the nutritional and health status of children and women in the DPRK.  These statistics thus represent an important, albeit infrequent, transparency.

Conventional wisdom would have held that Pyongyang would be fed before all other provinces.  However, the data shows that Pyongyang is likely fed better, but it is only fed better than most of North Korea, it is not fed better in an absolute sense.  All provinces and Pyongyang reported high 90 percentiles had received Vitamin A supplements.  Pyongyang shared weal and woe.

In terms of starvation, Ryanggang-do (량강도, 两江道)  seems to  have the worst problems with chronic malnutrition as around 12.1 % of children aged zero to five years of age suffer from severe chronic malnutrition (Report, p. 21). But even Pyongyang registered some significant levels of severe chronic malnutrition indicating every region and municipality in DPRK had experience of “belt-tightening”. However, when it comes to absolute numbers of cases, South Hamgyong Province is the unfortunate leader of the pack. Pyongyang, where the elites live, but where there is little room for growing food, has an estimated 10% of North Korea’s cases of severe acute malnutrition (Report, p. 66).

Severe malnutrition leads to stunting, which negatively impacts the pool from which military manpower is drawn. The report reminds us that the DRPK will either find a diminished pool of high-quality personnel from which to draw soldiers, or they’ll have to keep changing (i.e., lowering) their standards. Perhaps more importantly in the short term, starvation indicates a logistics system that has broken down or is inefficient. Guns and butter, after all, travel through the same logistics system.  North Korea does not seem to have a robust logistics system to support a sustained war effort.

The report also highlights structural and capacity-building issues. In a future reunification, the task will be to build a logistics system that can keep 75 million Koreans fed, clothed and in business as well as incorporating a fairly large proportion of people who are permanently stunted (either physically or mentally).  There will be a large requirement for special education services and vocational programs in the North.

The survey itself is an example of a kind of capacity-building program to supplement sovereignty. Stopping or at least slowing environmental devastation is another step for DPRK to grow better and more plentiful crops and would make a very beneficial capacity building capability that respects DPRK sovereignty.

The DPRK citizens listed (Report, p. 95) are likely to figure prominently in any future DPRK medical and nutritional programs. Certainly, it would strengthen the DPRK if that list and other lists grew even larger and the DPRK technocratic bench were deeper and broader.

The report provides some amazing insight on the DPRK, from the DPRK — this is one of their best-documented stories, told in as clinical and apolitical manner as one will ever see from North Korea.

Blog by: Roger Cavazos

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