x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

North Korea worried about drought, food shortage

A UN report says three million North Koreans are "in urgent need of international food assistance".

BEIJING // North Korea is facing its worst drought in decades, the head of a relief organisation has been told during a visit to the communist nation.

The warnings made to Wolfgang Jamann, the secretary general of the German non-governmental organisation Welthungerhilfe (World Hunger Aid), follow concerns over food shortages expressed this week by the United Nations and a South Korean researcher.

Mr Jamann, who completed his week-long visit on Thursday, said officials are worried about "how serious the situation is".

"Everyone was saying we're in a drought, the most serious drought for 60 years ... A serious drought could mean famine," he said in Beijing yesterday.

A UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report released on Monday said three million North Koreans, out of a total population of 23 million, were "in urgent need of international food assistance", although the South Korean government downplayed the seriousness of the situation.

Separately, a report by Kwon Tae-Jin of the Korea Rural Economic Institute in South Korea said a drought in North Korea, which started in April, could cut crop harvests by 86,000 tonnes.

"The rain needs to come. If the rain doesn't come, you always have the potential to lose the entire harvest," Mr Jamann said.

Estimates vary, but North Korea is believed to have an annual "food gap" of 500,000 to one million tonnes, out of a total requirement of 5.3 million tonnes.

Mr Jamann saw tractors dating from the 1950s being used in fields in North Korea, where rice yields of about 2.8 tonnes per hectare are about half those typically seen elsewhere.

He said farmers were often unable to use more modern machinery because spare parts and suitable fuel were lacking.

"They know about what could be possible, but you need mechanisation. You need different types of seeds," he said.

However, Mr Jamann said crop yields appeared to be higher on land where farmers could keep harvests for themselves, instead of passing them to the public food distribution system.

In October, Valerie Amos, the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said North Korea's food shortages would continue unless the country attracted investment and addressed "major structural issues".

About one third of North Korean children under 5 are believed to be malnourished, rising to 45 per cent in northern areas.

The country faces international sanctions because of its nuclear programme and concerns have been raised that food aid is diverted to the 1.2 million-member armed forces.

Proposals this year for the United States to provide 240,000 tonnes of food aid were scrapped after North Korea's unsuccessful rocket launch in April, a move widely seen as a test for ballistic missile technology that could carry nuclear warheads.

South Korea has not sent large-scale government food aid since 2008.

North Korea is led by Kim Jong-un, who took over on the death in December of his father, Kim Jong-il, who had ruled with an iron fist since 1994.