In complex emergencies, especially those involving famine and/or wide-spread food insecurity, assessments of malnutrition are critical to understanding the population's health status and to assessing the effectiveness of relief interventions. Although the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has benefited from some of the largest, most sustained appeals in the history of the World Food Program (WFP), the government in Pyongyang has placed restrictions on international efforts to gather data on the health and nutritional status of the affected population.
Question: Lacking direct means to assess the nutritional status of the North Korean populace, what other methodologies could be employed to measure the public health impacts of chronic food shortage?
The paper begins with a review of methods for assessing nutritional status, particularly in emergencies; a brief history of the North Korean food crisis (1995–2001), and a review of the available nutritional and health data on the DPRK. The main focus of the paper is on the results of a survey of 2,692 North Korean adult migrants in China. Recognizing certain biases and limitations, the study suggests that sample households have experienced an overall decline in food security, as evidenced by both the decline in government rations from an average of 120 grams per person per day to less than 60 grams per day, and by the increase in the percentage of households relying on foraging or bartering of assets as their principal source of food. It also is apparent that the period 1995–1998 has been marked by elevated household mortality, declining fertility, and steadily rising out-migration. Taken together, the signs point toward famine, whether that is defined as a discrete event—that is, as a regional failure in food production or distribution leading to elevated mortality from starvation and associated disease—or as a more complex social process whose sub-states include not only elevated mortality, but declining fertility, eating of alternative ‘famine foods’, transfer of assets, and the uprooting and separation of families.