Long drought aggravates food shortages in North Korea

People take part in an annual rice planting event in Nampho City in Chongsan-ri, near Nampho on May 12, 2019.
People take part in an annual rice planting event in Nampho City in Chongsan-ri, near Nampho on May 12, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (NYTIMES) - North Korea said on Wednesday (May 15) that it was suffering its worst drought in 37 years, adding to a food crisis that the United Nations said would worsen in coming months without urgent outside aid.

The country has received just 54mm of rain this year, or 42.3 per cent of the average, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said, adding that it was the lowest level since 1982. The news agency said weather conditions for heavy rain were not expected until the end of this month.

The report followed a joint announcement from two UN relief agencies this month that about 10 million North Koreans, or 40 per cent of the population, were facing "severe food shortages" after the country had its worst harvest in a decade last autumn.

The two groups, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, warned that North Korea's early season crops like wheat and barley, which will be harvested next month, were likely to suffer from "widespread low rainfall and lack of snow cover, which left crops exposed to freezing temperatures during winter".

In recent weeks, the North's news media has reported that party officials and workers were in an "all-out struggle" to find new water sources and mobilise pumps and irrigation equipment to save the crops.

UN sanctions imposed since the North's fourth nuclear test in 2016 have sharply reduced the country's exports, raising questions about how much foreign currency reserves it has to finance food imports, and North Korea remains in a stand-off with Washington over its nuclear weapons programme.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un has been hoping to win relief from the sanctions in return for the partial dismantlement of his country's nuclear weapons facilities. In February, he met President Donald Trump for the second time, but talks in Vietnam collapsed after Mr Trump refused to lift sanctions until North Korea relinquished all its nuclear weapons.

No report of mass starvation has emerged yet from North Korea, and the prices of rice, corn and other staples remain stable. The UN agencies said that the government was already reducing rations, which millions depend on for daily nutrition, and that it expected the situation to worsen during the lean season from June to September "if no proper and urgent humanitarian actions are taken".


A famine in the 1990s resulted in the deaths of two million people, according to some estimates. Although the situation has since improved, the country has had chronic food shortages. The situation turned worse again in the past year, and in February, North Korea's ambassador to the UN, Mr Kim Song, issued an unusual appeal for urgent food aid.

UN relief agencies have appealed annually for donations to help alleviate widespread malnutrition among children and nursing mothers in North Korea. But they have dwindled in recent years, as the North financed its nuclear weapons programme with resources Washington said should have been used to feed its people.

North Korea's state propaganda tells citizens that their economic difficulties are caused by international sanctions that Americans have created to "strangle" their country.

After the latest talks with Washington broke down, North Korea vowed not to buckle to international pressure even if its people had to survive on "water and air only", state media said. Mr Kim Jong Un said Washington had until the end of the year to show more flexibility or his country would seek an alternative to diplomatic negotiations. In the past week, North Korea has resumed short-range missile tests and, analysts say, may launch longer-range missiles if Washington does not ease sanctions.

South Korea is seeking to provide humanitarian food aid to North Korea as a goodwill gesture that it hopes will help the North refrain from weapons tests and return to the negotiating table. Mr Trump supports South Korea's efforts to provide aid, according to the office of President Moon Jae-in of South Korea.

UN sanctions against North Korea do not ban humanitarian aid for the country. But after North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan in 2017, South Korea faced pressure to reconsider its plan to donate US$8 million (S$10.95 million) to the World Food Programme and Unicef to help North Korea's malnourished children and pregnant women.

The sanctions have banned the export of coal, iron ore and other key North Korean products, as well as drastically cut oil imports. They have deprived the regime of important sources of income, as well as undercut its ability to import food to alleviate chronic food shortages.

Since the famine in the 1990s, millions of North Koreans have learnt to fend for themselves by securing their own food through unofficial markets. But millions of others still depend on the ration system, including soldiers and workers in state-run factories. The latter group, including the elites, are believed to suffer more from international sanctions than those dependent on market activities.