February 21, 2019 / 10:48 PM / 6 months ago

North Korea warns of food crisis, slashes rations before next leaders' summit

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - North Korea has warned that it is facing a food shortfall of some 1.4 million tons in 2019 and has been forced to almost halve rations, blaming high temperatures, drought, floods and United Nations sanctions in a memo seen by Reuters on Thursday.

The release of the undated two-page memo by the North Korean mission to the United Nations comes ahead of a second summit next week between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

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

The 15-member U.N. Security Council has unanimously boosted sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“The DPRK government calls on international organizations to urgently respond to addressing the food situation,” read the North Korean memo, which the country’s U.N. mission described as a follow-up to joint assessment with the World Food Programme between Nov. 26 and Dec. 7, 2018. WFP declined to comment.

The official name for North Korea is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The memo said North Korea’s food production last year was 4.951 million tons, 503,000 tons down on 2017. The United Nations 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 soy beans.

North Korea said it would import 200,000 tons of food and produce about 400,000 tons of early crops, but that it would still be left with a gap and from January would cut daily rations to 300 grams (10.5 ounces) per person from 550 grams.

U.N. 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,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Thursday.

He said the United Nations 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 U.N. appeal for $111 million in 2018 was only a quarter funded, Dujarric said.

The United Nations 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.

BAD HARVEST

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

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun said earlier this month the United States had eased rules on humanitarian assistance to North Korea and was working to clear a backlog of U.N. approvals.

Benjamin Silberstein, co-editor of North Korean Economy Watch and an 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 equals starvation so the U.S. should really be benevolent and give them up,” he said.

Humanitarian aid nearly ground to a halt in 2018 as the United States stepped up enforcement of U.N. sanctions, even though the Security Council 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.

FILE PHOTO - A North Korean farm is seen in the rice paddy fields on Hwanggumpyong Island, located in the middle of the Yalu River, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, North Phyongan Province, North Korea, June 19, 2015. REUTERS/Jacky Chen /File Photo

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 lawmaker 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 U.N. 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.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS Additional reporting by Joyce Lee, Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Editing by James Dalgleish and Paul Tait

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