Neutrons over nutrition: Half of North Koreans need humanitarian aid

Special to

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Following the failed Hanoi Summit with the USA, North Korea is now sending mixed messages concerning its denuclearization and missile testing intentions. Pyongyang’s deliberately cryptic policy is likely meant to sow confusion and gain a negotiating advantage with the U.S. over Washington’s efforts to denuclearize North Korea.

Nonetheless, despite diplomatic posturing, what remains clear is the riveting reality that North Korea still faces a humanitarian emergency which directly impacts on nearly half its population.

Human needs take secondary priority in a nation focused on its strategic arsenal.
Human needs take secondary priority in a nation focused on its strategic arsenal.

While the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) pursues a covert policy to develop neutrons for weapons proliferation over needed nutrition for its own people, the very same country faces significant food and medicine shortages.

A new UN survey starkly outlines the DPRK’s continuing humanitarian challenges. The humanitarian document “DPR Korea Needs and Priorities” outlines a troubling situation in the
communist country of 25 million.

“An estimated 11 million ordinary men, women and children lack sufficient nutritious food, clean drinking water or access to basic services like health and sanitation,” the report states adding, “Widespread undernutrition threatens an entire generation of children.”

The survey outlines, “As worrying as the lack of nutritious food, is the acute lack of access to clean water and sanitation, especially in the most remote areas of the country. Almost 10 million people do not have access to safe drinking water.”

Tapan Mishra, the UN’s coordinator for North Korean relief adds that efforts are currently targeting the most acute starvation. “Humanitarian agencies in DPRK need $120 million to provide assistance to 3.8 million people. This is a relatively small amount of money compared to the global humanitarian need, but will have a huge impact on ordinary people’s lives,” focused on the most vulnerable including 1.6 million under-five children.

Much of the UN humanitarian plans remain woefully underfunded by International donors. In 2018, barely a quarter of the requested $111 million was given by donor states.

Food production is falling yet again. According to Pyongyang’s official Ministry of Agriculture figures, “overall food production in DPRK was 4.95 million tonnes, compared to 5.45 million tonnes in 2017. This is a 9 per cent lower than in 2017 and 16 per cent lower than in 2016.”

Mishra’s report clearly cites “Chronic food insecurity and malnutrition is widespread in DPR Korea (DPRK), with profound humanitarian impacts for the most vulnerable people in the country. An estimated 11 million people, or 43 per cent of the population, are undernourished.”

While food production is falling and humanitarian aid is needed for nearly half the population, North Korea covertly pursues a parallel track of nuclear proliferation and ballistic missile development. Testing stopped a year ago due to determined American and South Korean diplomacy; nonetheless Pyongyang could restart some military programs as tactic to push new negotiations.

A separate survey from the Global Hunger Index has classified the level of hunger in North Korea as ‘serious’ and ‘bordering on alarming,’ with the DPRK ranked 109 out of 119 qualifying countries.

Safe drinking water is rare in large parts of the country. Approximately, 39 per cent, or an estimated 10 million people, do not have access to a safely managed drinking water source, rising to 56 per cent in rural areas. All this in Kim Jong-Un’s workers’ paradise.

As expected there’s a vivid urban/rural divide; in Pyongyang the capital, 97 per cent of people have access to basic sanitation, while in South Hwanghae Province only 69 per cent of people have such ability.

Access to the remote provinces of North Korea by humanitarian agencies has long been a hurdle. Although humanitarian agencies now have entry to all 11 provinces in the country, large areas inside some of these provinces still remain highly restricted areas to foreigners.

Beyond North Korea’s woeful humanitarian ills, there’s equally a huge socio/economic gap between the DPRK and their democratic and successful cousins in neighboring South Korea.

Yet another UN Security Council document concerning the DPRK’s sanctions-busting asserts, “The nuclear and ballistic missile programs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remain intact and the country continues to defy the Security Council’s resolutions.” UN Economic sanctions are widely being circumvented by China; equally North Korea still clandestinely conducts thriving weapons exports to the Islamic Republic of Iran and Yemen.

In the meantime, Pyongyang pursues neutrons over nutrition for its own people. No wonder a long indulgent world community which supported humanitarian aid for suffering North Korean civilians is now cautious after feeling being “played” by the DPRK’s brinksmanship amid its genuine food security woes.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]