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Posted : 2012-05-29 17:56
Updated : 2012-05-29 17:56

Concern rising over NK food woes


A North Korean farmer attempts to irrigate a field in South Pyongyan Province amid worries of a drought that could damage crops, in this May 25 photo. AP-Yonhap

By Kim Young-jin

Drought conditions and reports of worsened food shortages in North Korea are sparking concern as the impoverished country enters its planting season.

According to the South’s Korea Meteorological Administration, the North has received between two to 51 millimeters of rain in May, far lower than the monthly norm of 48 to 105 millimeters according to region.

Pyongyang said last week the conditions were threatening crops and that many people had been mobilized across the nation to minimize damage and that emergency measures were being prepared.

The North often publicizes hardships due to weather such as drought or heavy rain. But this is the first time for it under the fledging regime of Kim Jong-un, who analysts say still needs to prove his leadership.

Foreign reports citing U.N. food officials said that while seedlings were being taken to seed beds, a continued dry spell would prevent them from growing.

While it remains to be seen if Pyongyang will request aid as it has during past summers, observers said its decision was likely constrained by international anger over its provocative rocket launch last month.

“We acknowledge and are watching the reports on the drought,” said an official of the Ministry of Unification that monitors the North. “But we can’t yet say crops will be affected.”

The country has been dogged by food shortages due to failure to manage its economy and agriculture properly as well as natural disasters. Hundreds of thousands are estimated to have died in a famine in the 1990s.

The Daily NK, a website focused on the North, said earlier this month that worsening food shortages had caused people to starve to death in South and North Hwanghae provinces, considered the county’s agricultural heartland. Citing sources, it said authorities had significantly reduced rations.

Good Friends, a Seoul-based aid group, also said South Hwanghae residents had perished, and that workers at a steel factory had died because of halted food supplies.

“The food crisis in the entire country is extremely alarming and it is difficult to find a place without people starving to death,” the group quoted a North Korean official as saying, on its website.

Seoul stopped the expansion of “flexible” aid measures in response to the April 13th launch, which was condemned in a U.N. Security Council statement.

The launch broke a February deal between the North and the United States under which Pyongyang stood to gain 240,000 tons of nutritional aid in exchange for moves to slow the growth of its nuclear program.

Analysts said the deal represented a test of North Korea’s intent under the leadership of the young Kim, which it promptly failed. Still, Washington has left the door ajar, with U.S. special envoy to North Korea Glynn Davies last week saying, “Should the opportunity present itself, if we can reach a stage where we can once again have faith in the North Koreans’ ability to abide by its undertakings and its promises, we would like very much to get back to the provision of nutritional assistance.”

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