SEOUL • North Korea is suffering its worst drought in decades and food supplies are reportedly running low, but South Korea's push to provide aid is bogged down by growing tension over missile tests and sanctions crackdowns.
South Korea is seeking to send food directly to the North while scaling up donations to international agencies, including the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), two sources said.
If it takes off, it would mark the South's first bilateral food aid since 2010, when it delivered 5,000 tonnes of rice, Unification Ministry data shows.
The WFP says more than 10 million North Koreans are in urgent need after crop output plunged to a decade low last year.
On Wednesday, Pyongyang's state media said the North's average rain and snowfall this year fell to their lowest levels in 37 years.
The Korean Central News Agency described the situation as "an extreme drought".
A devastating famine in the 1990s, exacerbated by drought, killed as many as one million North Koreans, with many resorting to eating tree bark and grass.
Number of North Koreans who are in urgent need after crop output plunged to a decade low last year, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.
The North's official newspaper Rodong Sinmun has called for staging "war against nature", mobilising all available water pumps and irrigation equipment.
Party officials and workers were also in an "all-out struggle" to find new water sources, state media reported.
But tension on the Korean peninsula has again mounted since a second summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and United States President Donald Trump, aimed at bringing about the denuclearisation of the North, broke down in Hanoi in February.
LACK OF INFORMATION
It's difficult to know just how bad the situation really is. It doesn't look like we are headed for another famine, but the food situation definitely appears to have deteriorated.
MR PETER WARD, a scholar who researches North Korea's economy, citing the lack of credible information.
In recent weeks, the North has fired two missiles and multiple projectiles in what South Korean President Moon Jae-in called a calibrated protest against Washington.
Mr Moon said Mr Trump supported his aid plan, but US officials - after promising to ease hurdles to humanitarian aid earlier this year - remain half-hearted, especially in light of the recent weapons tests.
The officials blame the North Korean regime for the food shortages.
The Moon administration, whose 2017 push for US$8 million (S$10.9 million) aid to UN agencies fell apart amid flaring tensions, is adamant about implementing its latest commitment, but it is unclear when and how that plan will materialise, according to sources who spoke on anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
"They'll try their best to make it happen, but nothing has been decided. There is a lot more to consider than two years ago," one of the sources said.
The source said there was a "sense of crisis" brewing within the administration ahead of a key parliamentary election next year amid the stalled nuclear talks and lacklustre progress in inter-Korea initiatives.
The dramatic detente between the two Koreas has propped up Mr Moon's approval ratings, which were hit by a stagnating economy and job crunch, and then fell to their lowest levels after the Hanoi summit.
Mr Moon said the aid would not only help needy North Koreans, but also reduce his government's excessive rice stockpile, and break the nuclear stand-off between Pyongyang and Washington.
About 45 per cent of South Koreans support humanitarian aid to the North, according to a study released on Monday by the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification.
But the North's Maeri propaganda website brushed off the South's aid plan as "empty words" and "far-fetched mockery".
Early this year, South Korea offered to provide flu medication, but its delivery was delayed amid consultations with the US and the North eventually refused to take it.
Historically, rice has also been a sensitive item, along with cement and fertilisers, due to concerns that Pyongyang may divert outside handouts to bankroll its weapons programmes.
"The situation is extremely sensitive," another source said. "If the two-track approach proves unfeasible, we would just have to go through the international organisations."
Mr Peter Ward, a scholar who researches North Korea's economy, citing the lack of credible information, said: "It's difficult to know just how bad the situation really is.
"It doesn't look like we are headed for another famine, but the food situation definitely appears to have deteriorated."