North Korea warns of food crisis before Kim-Trump summit

Memo says Pyongyang forced to almost halve rations, blaming high temperatures, drought, floods and UN sanctions.

    North Korea said it would import 200,000 tonnes of food [Jacky Chen/Reuters]
    North Korea said it would import 200,000 tonnes of food [Jacky Chen/Reuters]

    North Korea has warned it is facing a food shortfall of some 1.4 million tonnes this year and has been forced to almost halve rations, blaming high temperatures, drought, floods and the United Nations sanctions, according to a memo by Pyongyang's mission to the world body.

    The release of the undated two-page memo, seen by Reuters news agency on Thursday, comes days before a second summit next week in Hanoi, Vietnam, between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump.

    Washington has been demanding that North Korea give up a nuclear weapons programme that threatens the United States, while Pyongyang has been seeking a lifting of punishing sanctions, a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War and security guarantees.

    The 15-member UN Security Council has unanimously boosted sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke off funding for its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

    "The DPRK government calls on international organisations to urgently respond to addressing the food situation," read the North Korean memo, which the country's UN mission described as a follow-up to joint assessment with the World Food Programme (WFP) between November 26 and December 7, 2018. The official name for North Korea is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

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    There was no immediate comment by WFP.

    The memo said North Korea's food production last year was 4.951 million tonnes, 503,000 tonnes down from 2017. The UN confirmed these figures as official government data provided at the end of January and said North Korea's food production included rice, wheat, potatoes and soybeans.

    North Korea said it would import 200,000 tonnes of food and produce about 400,000 tonnes of early crops, but that it would still be left with a gap and from January would cut daily rations to 300 grams for each person from 550 grams.

    UN officials and aid groups in North Korea were consulting the government to "further understand the impact of the food security situation on the most vulnerable people in order to take early action to address their humanitarian needs", UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Thursday.

    He said the UN and aid groups were only able to help one-third of six million people estimated to be in need last year due to a lack of funding. A UN appeal for $111m in 2018 was only a quarter funded, Dujarric said.

    The UN estimates a total of 10.3 million people - almost half the population - are in need and some 41 percent of North Koreans are undernourished, Dujarric said.

    Along with extreme weather, the North Korean memo also blames the UN sanctions for restricting the delivery of farming materials and hindering fuel supply for the agricultural sector.

    US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun said earlier this month Washington had eased rules on humanitarian assistance to North Korea and was working to clear a backlog of UN approvals.

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    Benjamin Silberstein, a coeditor of North Korean Economy Watch and associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the harvest had been bad but there was no sign of an emergency.

    "Of course, it's at least partially about the sanctions," Silberstein said. "Just look at the way the letter is worded. They want to make it sound like sanctions equal starvation so the US should really be benevolent and give them up," he said.

    Humanitarian aid nearly ground to a halt in 2018 as the US stepped up enforcement of UN sanctions, even though the UNSC's North Korea sanctions committee has said "sanctions are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population".

    "While Security Council sanctions clearly exempt humanitarian activities, there have been unintended consequences on humanitarian operations," Dujarric said.

    Margareta Wahlstrom, president of the Swedish Red Cross, told Reuters after a trip to North Korea in November that, as far as the areas in which they operated were concerned, the maize harvest was only 65 percent of what should be normal due to the combination of an influenza outbreak, a heat wave and a typhoon.

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    Russia is considering sending 50,000 tonnes of wheat in humanitarian aid to North Korea to help it cope with natural disasters, the Interfax news agency cited senior Russian legislator Konstantin Kosachev as saying last week.

    Kim Young-hee, a North Korean defector and an expert on the North Korean economy at Korea Development Bank in Seoul, did not think the memo was asking for food.

    "The memo seems like a message saying 'although UN sanctions do not affect people's lives directly, they affect the whole economy and people's livelihoods are getting worse. So wouldn't it be good if sanctions were eased?'," she said.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency