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Nutrition Without Borders

An entry pass to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea where the World Food Programme is assisting the most vulnerable.

Story by World Food Programme 31 de octubre de 2015

In DPR Korea, where almost one third of children are undernourished, a drought this year continues to affect the most vulnerable.
Here we see how WFP food assistance is helping mothers and young children to thrive in a place where even at the best of times, many people struggle to find enough to eat.

A photo-story by Damian Kean


pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers

Kim Yun Sil

In a bleak-looking government building on a rainy day in Samchon County, 90 minutes south of Pyongyang, Kim Yun Sil rifles through her shopping tote-bag and produces a fistful of recycled plastic bags.

The 29 year-old kneels down and carefully places one of the bags underneath a small stainless steel chute protruding from the wall. Her flustered expression turns to a smile as a stern-looking worker on the other side of the wall barks an instruction and a fluffy white powder shoots out, filling up the bag.

On her back, 3-month-old Kim Sun Ung is sleeping. He has no idea that his mother has just collected a month’s supply of a “cereal milk blend” – a type of flour provided by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) that is fortified with milk proteins and other nutrients, specially designed for young children, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. She receives it along with oil and soy, which, together with the flour, she will make into pancakes and bread.

“This food is a great help to me, because it allows me to feed my child by producing more milk”

Her husband, who works in a nearby tree nursery, isn’t allowed any. It is too tasty for him, she jokes. “This food is a great help to me, because it allows me to feed my child by producing more milk,” says Kim Yun Sil. “Before I became a housewife I trained as a nurse, so I know how important this is for my baby’s future.” Much of WFP’s work in DPR Korea focuses on providing food for the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.

If key nutrients are missed in this window, it can have long-term effects on mental and physical development. But in this country, almost a third of children under the age of five are too small for their age – a condition called stunting, which is caused by chronic malnutrition. Many here are worried that this situation may worsen in coming months, as a poor harvest is expected this year.

Han Hye Gyong, a farmer and recent mother in Samchon County, is worried about this year’s reduced harvest.
Sign at Samchon children’s hospital in Hwanghae Province, where 13 out of 30 patients are weak from malnutrition.
A child sleeping in the Samchon children’s hospital, Hwanghae Province.
Doctor at the Samchon children’s hospital in Hwanghae Province, where 13 out of 30 patients are weak from malnutrition.

When it comes to growing food in DPR Korea, no space is wasted. Pumpkin patches adorn the roofs of rural houses, every inch of hillside seems to be terraced, and windowsills and vegetable patches supplement urban dinner tables. But despite the ingenuity, some officials and farmers are worried. Although it rained non-stop on the day that we visit, an 18-month drought that lasted until June meant that many farmers in Samchon had to replant their maize two or three times before it would take.

Many ran out of seed as a result, and the country had to ask for help from the government. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says it is likely that the country’s yield from the main harvest will be 10 – 15 percent lower than average.

In chronically food-insecure DPR Korea, this could be serious. “This county is very vulnerable to drought,” says Jon Jun Ryong, food administrator in Samchon. “Most of our water reservoirs are at low capacity, and the early crop harvest was 20 – 25 percent lower than average. Farmers already know they will have a reduced surplus to keep for themselves, so they are trying to cope by collecting wild plants and taking other measures.”

“The WFP fortified food speeds up the recovery of the children.”

At the county paediatric hospital, Dr. Rim Kum Chol is grateful for the food provided by WFP. “Thirteen of the 30 children here are weak because of malnutrition,” he says. “The WFP fortified food speeds up the recovery of the children.” But he too is worried that a reduction in harvest will result in more child malnutrition – and more patients coming through the door.

It is a worry that is also reflected by farmers. “We can already see that there will be a reduction in yield compared to previous years,” says Han Hye Gyong, a local farmer and recent mother, who also receives food from WFP. She sits on the floor of her modest home, cradling her three-month-old child Hong Gyon Ung. “The summer crop is not looking promising.

We are already collecting wild vegetables and will have to rely on the kitchen garden.” The results of this year’s summer harvest are due to be released in late October. A grain deficiency could mean a reduction in the government public ration for citizens.

WFP has already provided 3,800 metric tons of food to more than 733,000 people this year, but it is critically underfunded and can only reach half of the people it hopes to. In the end, it may be children who suffer the most. WFP’s work in DPR Korea has never been more important.


Children at Samchon Nursery School wave from a window. Children here receive soy, oil and cereal milk blend.

Kim Yun Gyong tucks into some bread and soy soup. She doesn’t have much to say, other than what you would expect from a four-year-old: she likes dancing, she likes the lady who looks after her, and yes (thank you), she likes the food.

A student in a nursery about one and a half hours’ drive from Pyongyang, Kim Yun Gyong is a beneficiary of a UN World Food Programme (WFP) scheme to feed more than 733,000 children, breastfeeding mothers and pregnant women in DPR Korea.

In DPR Korea, almost a third of children under five are too small for their age – a condition known as stunting, which is caused by chronic malnutrition. If children miss out on crucial vitamins and minerals in the first few years of life, it can affect long-term development and growth, so WFP food is helping to provide vital nutrients to them.

Jang Hyon Gyong, a 19-year-old worker at the nursery school, says she remembers getting WFP food when she was growing up. “I remember the WFP biscuits,” she says. “They were delicious.” Nowadays the children in the pre-school get WFP meals twice a day. They comprise of soy and a type of flour called Cereal Milk Blend (CMB), made of milk powder and milled grain, and fortified with vitamins and minerals.

The CMB starts life in an imposing industrial building next to a railway siding in Pyongyang, where puffs of white clouds billow from the door. In a dimly lit warehouse filled with aging equipment, dozens of masked workers in white overalls and red aprons scurry about, filling and stacking sacks.

Ryu Jong Ok, like everyone here, is covered in white powder. Although the masks the workers wear hide their smiles, the gags fly as they work hard.

The raw commodities being processed here come into the country by sea, from as far afield as Switzerland, Australia, Russia, Canada and China.

“I like this job, it makes the children happy, the parents happy and me happy.”

At this WFP-supported factory, between 6,500 and 9,400 metric tons of CMB are produced every year on average – depending on the availability of raw material. Ryu Jong Ok has been doing this job for 10 years – stacking and filling sacks. She says she is proud to be part of a system that improves the status of children.

“I have two children of my own,” she says. “They are grown up now, but I am proud that the CMB we make here goes to children in nurseries, schools, orphanages and paediatric wards across the country. I like this job; it makes the children happy, the parents happy and me happy.”

13 out of 30 patients at Samchon children’s hospital in Hwanghae Province, are weak from malnutrition.
19-year-old Jang Hyon Gyong, a nursery school worker who hands out WFP food to her charges.
Ryu Jong Ok works in the WFP supported factory making cereal milk blend.
Workers in a factory near Pyongyang fill sacks with cereal milk blend.