January 18, 2007 / 10:59 PM / 12 years ago

North Korea nuclear row sharpens humanitarian fears

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An already dire humanitarian situation in North Korea looks set to worsen this winter after the impoverished country’s nuclear brinkmanship resulted in sanctions and intensified scrutiny, aid workers and experts said on Friday.

North Korea has still not recovered from famine in the 1990s that experts believe killed about 2.5 million people, or 10 percent of the population.

United Nations sanctions imposed after North Korea’s October 9 underground nuclear test do not cover food and humanitarian supplies and aid groups say they have been assured that the curbs won’t bar them from operating in the country.

“U.S. NGOs have been allowed to conduct humanitarian assistance activities in North Korea, most of those at a modest scale,” said a senior private aid official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“Those have not been affected to date by the growing estrangement in the political relationship.”

But the U.N. measures which block trade with North Korea in weapons of mass destruction, heavy conventional weapons and luxury goods, come as the big international relief flows that had fed millions since the 1990s are drying up.

A day after North Korea announced its nuclear test, the World Food Program, the U.N.’s food relief arm, warned that it could be forced to halt distributions as early as January without more donations.

Donors had committed only 10 percent of the $102 million the WFP sought last June North Korea, with only Ireland and Australia contributing.

TIGHTER CHINA BORDER

Food aid from South Korea and China has also been scaled down, with Chinese relief down to a third of 2005 levels, WFP officials have said.

“If the Chinese were to cut off their food program, there would be a more acute crisis,” said the aid official.

“There is a critical medicine shortage and there has been for the last decade because they spend their money on a million-man army instead of medicine.”

U.S. activist Adrian Hong, whose group Liberty in North Korea helps refugees gain asylum in Western countries, said a recent tour of the region left him “very worried at the moment for the people we have in our shelters.”

China has stepped up security on its border with North Korea, a move that may have represented compliance with U.N. sanctions on illicit weapons trade. But Hong said China was also fencing part of the border in a sign it might be trying to “eliminate the refugee problem by stopping refugees entirely.”

“Once those fences go up and this winter gets difficult, more people are going to try to leave,” said Hong, who talked with recent refugees in China last week and said all relayed accounts of hunger and malnutrition.

Marcus Noland, a scholar at the Institute for International Economics in Washington, said low grain output this year due to floods, appears to reflect hoarding by farmers after the state seized crops last year.

“In certain areas, it’s clear the government just sent the army in to take grain,” said Noland.

History and the political structure of North Korea suggests the army will pass the pain of sanctions on to the population.

“The military is going to get the resources it needs and ultimately the burden of these sanctions is going to be felt by common people,” said Noland.

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