ROME (AP) — North Korea increased its production of staple foods for the second year in a row, thanks in part to better use of fertilizers and plastic sheeting to protect crops, but its citizens are still suffering from a serious lack of key proteins and fats in their diets, a U.N. report said Monday.
A U.N. team visited all nine agricultural provinces of the communist state in September and October during the main cereal harvest and estimated that even with the increase — a 10 percent improvement over last year — North Korea will need to import 507,000 metric tons of cereals to meet its basic food needs in 2013.
With little arable land, harsh weather and chronic shortages of fuel and equipment, North Korea has struggled for decades to feed its 24 million people. Its new leader, Kim Jong Un, has made improving the economy a priority and has pledged to improve North Koreans' standards of living.
The report was the first since he assumed power following the December death of his father, Kim Jong Il, and it appeared aimed at encouraging the fledgling changes in farming that have been introduced since then. It noted, for example, that the timely arrival of fertilizers and plastic sheeting to protect rice paddies helped minimize the impact of a dry spell in spring that was followed by torrential flooding in many provinces over the summer.
And it recommended that North Korean farmers be allowed to sell or barter their surplus food at market, rather than turn their excess over to the state. Such incentives, which farmers recently reported were in the works, should encourage farmers to boost production, according to the joint report from the World Food Program and U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
But the survey also made clear that the problems that have long kept North Koreas undernourished remain: insufficient and inefficient tractors and chronic shortages of fuel, spare parts and tires necessary to run them.
Agriculture is North Korea's lifeblood, contributing a quarter of the nation's economy and engaging a third of the population. But many northern farms rely on ox and manual labor because there simply aren't enough tractors and equipment to go around. Foreign food aid and imports make up for the shortfalls.
In its eagerly anticipated report, the U.N. said it was concerned that North Korea's soybean production fell 30 percent and that there were limited vegetables available, meaning the chronic lack of proteins, oils, fats, vitamins and micro-nutrients in the typical North Korean diet remains a problem.
"The new harvest figures are good news, but the lack of proteins and fats in the diet is alarming," Claudia von Roehl, the World Food Program's country director for North Korea, said in a statement.
While levels of acute malnutrition have declined, about 2.8 million people in five provinces of the northeast— children, the elderly and pregnant and lactating women — remain vulnerable and need fortified biscuits and other highly nutritious food, the report said in urging international aid be targeted to these groups.
It noted that a national nutritional survey is expected at the end of the year.
The U.N. report proposed ways to improve the North Korea diet, saying farmers there need to produce more protein-rich foods like fish and soybeans. It suggested the government increase the price for soybeans in particular to make growing them more attractive to farmers. The U.N. said household gardens could go a long way to providing a more diverse diet for ordinary North Koreans and urged Pyongyang to boost efforts to plant two rounds of crops a year rather than just one.
The report said overall production for the 2012-2013 early harvest was expected to be 5.8 million metric tons. The government has set a cereal import target of 300,000 metric tons. Given the U.N. estimate that 507,000 metric tons of imported cereals are needed, the deficit is expected to be 207,000 metric tons, the lowest in many years, the statement said.