North Korea‘s food production fell to its lowest level in more than a decade last year as natural disasters hit the country that was already under crippling international sanctions over its weapons programme, according to the United Nations.
The country has, for decades, been grappling with chronic food shortages in the face of a dysfunctional state ration system and international sanctions imposed over its nuclear and missile programmes.
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Last year, Pyongyang called for an “all-out battle” against “an unprecedented heat wave” and its mission to the UN in New York last month warned of a food crisis.
According to the UN, a prolonged heat wave, along with typhoons and floods, took its toll on food harvest, resulting in a nine percent drop from 2017 to the lowest level in more than a decade.
Margareta Wahlstrom, president of Swedish Red Cross, told Reuters news agency after her visit to the North late last year that maze yields fell more than 30 percent from average levels in some areas and rice prices would likely rise this year, aggravating food insecurity.
That has resulted in a “significant food gap”, leaving about 3.8 million, or 6.6 percent of its 25 million population, in urgent need of humanitarian assistance worth $120m, according to Tapan Mishra, the UN Resident Coordinator in the North.
In a summit bringing together its leaders, North Korea and the United States were hoping to sign an agreement that sees Pyongyang work towards denuclearisation in exchange for economic relief.
The UN has been struggling to rally donors behind its North Korea programmes and said its 2018 “Needs and Priorities Plan” for the country was only funded at 24 percent.
Mishra cited international sanctions as major challenges which have caused delays in aid deliveries, forcing other relief groups to scale back their operations in the North.
“Without adequate funding this year, the only option left for some agencies will be to close projects that serve as a life-line for millions of people,” Mishra said in a statement.
The UN sanctions technically exempt humanitarian activities. But humanitarian aid for the North nearly ground to a halt last year due to strict interpretations of bans on banking and shipping transactions with Pyongyang, as well as a travel ban for US citizens, according to a dozen officials at UN and US civilian organisations.
“We would like to see stronger, codified humanitarian protections written into existing regulations rather than each aid delivery and humanitarian delegation being considered on a case-by-case basis,” said Daniel Jasper of the American Friends Service Committee, which has run farming projects in North Korea for 20 years.
The Philadelphia-based group, which joined the meeting with US officials, pointed to the current rules limiting shipments to twice a year as “not practical”, especially for health programmes which require round-the-clock support.