North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Picture: REUTERS / KIM KYUNG-HOON
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Picture: REUTERS / KIM KYUNG-HOON

Seoul — North Korea’s food production in 2018 fell to its lowest level in more than a decade as natural disasters hit the country already under crippling international sanctions over its weapons programme, the UN said on Wednesday.

North Korea has for decades been grappling with chronic food shortages in the face of a dysfunctional state ration system and international sanctions imposed over its nuclear and missile programmes.

In 2018, Pyongyang called for an “all-out battle” against “an unprecedented heat wave” and its mission to the UN in New York in February warned of a food crisis.

A prolonged heatwave, along with typhoon and floods has taken a toll on food harvest, which posted a 9% drop from 2017 to the lowest level in more than a decade, the UN said.

Margareta Wahlstrom, president of Swedish Red Cross, said  after her visit to the North late  in 2018  that maize yields fell more than 30% from average levels in some areas and rice prices would likely rise in 2019, aggravating food security.

That has resulted in a “significant food gap”, leaving some 3.8-million, or 6.6% of its 25-million population, in urgent need of humanitarian assistance worth $120m, according to Tapan Mishra, the UN resident coordinator in the North.

The UN has been struggling to rally donors behind its North Korea programmes, and said its 2018 Needs and Priorities Plan for the isolated nation was only funded at 24%.

Mishra cited international sanctions as a major challenge, which has caused delays in aid deliveries and forced other relief groups to scale back their operations in the North.

“Without adequate funding this year, the only option left for some agencies will be to close projects that serve as a lifeline for millions of people,” Mishra said.

The UN sanctions technically exempt humanitarian activities. But humanitarian aid for the North nearly ground to a halt in 2018 due to strict interpretations of bans on banking and shipping transactions with Pyongyang, as well as a travel ban for US citizens, according to a dozen officials at UN and US civilian organisations.

Last August, the UN adopted a US proposal to streamline approval for aid shipments. After meeting with relief groups in January, the US state department promised to facilitate their North Korea operations in a move partly aimed at expediting nuclear talks with Pyongyang.

But there is no clear sign of improvement yet, with the complex, one-off approval procedures continuing to slow deliveries of basic food packages, medical equipment and other supplies, according to Mishra and at least four other organisations.

“We would like to see stronger, codified humanitarian protections written into existing regulations rather than each aid delivery and humanitarian delegation being considered on a case-by-case basis,” said Daniel Jasper of the American Friends Service Committee, which has run farming projects in North Korea for 20 years.

The Philadelphia-based group, which joined the meeting with US officials, pointed to the current rules limiting shipments to twice a year as not practical especially for health programmes requiring round-the-clock support.

“While unintended consequences of sanctions persist, these delays have a real and tangible impact on the aid that we are able to provide to people who desperately need it,” Mishra said.