The Work of International Aid Organizations in North Korea


SEATTLE — North Korea, also known as the Hermit Kingdom, has been in a perpetual food shortage since the 1990s, and it has been up to international aid organizations in North Korea to help feed the hungry masses. According to The Guardian, two out of every five North Koreans are undernourished.

The United Nations reports that out of a population of 18 million people, 70 percent of the population relies on food subsidies provided by the government and international aid organizations in North Korea. The United Nations has six permanent agencies operating in North Korea: FAO, WHO, UNFPA, WFP, UNICEF and a special organization that focuses specifically on North Korea.

The first objective of international aid organizations in North Korea is to stabilize and grow food security and agricultural output. Currently, the cereal crops grown on over 80 percent of the aidable land do not provide enough nutrition to meet dietary needs.

Soy production is beginning to take hold, but not fast enough. The low yield harvests are due to antiquated farming techniques and technology, such as a lack of crop rotation. Planting soy will help increase the use of crop rotation and help return nutrients to the poor soil. Flooding and other natural disasters, as well as weather patterns, also hinder harvests.

In additon to food security, international aid organizations in North Korea are working to provide better nutrition to its people. Malnutrition in mothers impacts the child and causes irreversible damage to the body that can be seen throughout the person’s life. The WHO delivers 5,000 metric tons of nutritionally fortified biscuits to about two million people a month. The majority of the people who receive these nutritious biscuits are women and children. 


The spread of disease in North Korea is not caused only by malnutrition. The lack of water, sanitation and proper education about bodily hygiene is an issue that international aid organizations in North Korea are working to improve. Lack of funding and natural disasters have left this infrastructure in severe disrepair. According to the 2008 census, 89 percent of the population has running water, but 22 percent of people still need to collect standing water. Standing water can harbor microbes and pathogens that cause various diseases and illnesses.

A 2009 survey found that 42 percent of families use shallow pit latrines and 17 percent of these latrines were used without a squatting board or cover. Insects that land on the contents of these pits spread disease and parasites. If located upwind or on a higher gradient than food stores and preparation areas, the groundwater and rain can spread the infected contents of the latrines. To address this, an assessment of the country’s water infrastructure is currently taking place.

International aid organizations in North Korea are fighting many different types of health issues. A 2015 research study conducted by scientists and doctors in South Korea found that North Korean defectors had higher rates of hepatitis B, hepatitis C, tuberculosis and parasites than South Koreans. 

To help the North Korean government fight against these and other afflictions, the U.N. has developed a strategy to help increase North Korean health service efficiency. Unfortunately, progress is slow and most institutions still do not come close to modern standards. Some progress has been made, however. A social and demographic health survey conducted in 2014 showed that the average life expectancy rose from 69 years in 2008 to 72 in 2014.

Another international aid organization in North Korea is the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). In late August 2016, massive flooding in the northern part of North Korea displaced 70,000 people. This prompted the government to begin building new housing for its displaced population. The IFRC stepped in to aid the displaced families by providing temporary shelters for displaced people and then by helping to rebuild homes that were still standing after the flood.

Mitigating the dangers of natural disasters is an important goal of the IFRC in North Korea. It works from the community level up to the national level to help prepare North Korean citizens for common natural disasters. One of its simplest techniques to warn against a flood are water level markers. When a river reaches a certain marker, it is suggested that the community evacuate the area.

IFRC is also working to help provide greenhouses to communities and improve farming techniques. These techniques can increase crop yields and lower the risk and damage done by flooding. The IFRC and the other aid organizations in North Korea hope to continue working with the government to ensure the health and safety of its people.

– Nick DeMarco

Photo: Flickr


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Nicholas DeMarco

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