A submerged Han River park by flooded Han River is seen in Seoul, South Korea, August 6, 2020. Neighbouring North Korea has also been hit by floods brught on by torrential rains. Picture: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
A submerged Han River park by flooded Han River is seen in Seoul, South Korea, August 6, 2020. Neighbouring North Korea has also been hit by floods brught on by torrential rains. Picture: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Seoul — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspected a rural area hit by flooding as torrential rains threaten to wipe out farmland and deal another blow to a virus-damaged economy set for its biggest contraction in more than two decades.

Kim visited Unpha county, about 60km south of the capital, where about 730 homes have been flooded and ordered food and shelter be provided for those affected by the natural disaster, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Friday.

North Korea’s state TV has reported that 10 other counties have seen more than 500 ml of rain since Thursday, according to NK News, a specialised news service for the country. Heavy rains have hit the Pyongan and Hwanghae provinces, the country’s breadbasket provinces that UN World Food Programme (WFP)  data indicates account for about 70% of its rice production.

Agricultural production is a key element of North Korea’s economy and flooding in its summer months has led to diminished harvest, putting strain on Kim as he battles global sanctions put in place to punish the state for its nuclear and ballistic missile testing.

The WFP, which has operations in North Korea, has said about 40% of the population is undernourished, adding “food insecurity and malnutrition are widespread”.

The country’s economy likely managed to eke out growth in 2019, but Kim’s decision to shut borders in January due to the coronavirus slammed the brakes on the little legal trade the state has, and could send the economy this year into its biggest contraction since 1997, according to Fitch Solutions.

Despite the troubles, North Korea has rejected the offer made by US President Donald Trump’s administration for the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” dismantling of North Korea’s atomic arsenal before it can receive relief from sanctions choking its paltry economy. Pyongyang’s leaders see giving up the weapons as political suicide.

Boo Seung-chan, a former adviser to South Korea’s defence minister now an adjunct professor at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the economic damage would be “severe” this year and this could bring serious political damage.

“During the 1990s famine, North Korea’s then leader Kim Jong Il turned to ‘military first’ politics to solidify his legitimacy to rule,” Boo said. “Kim Jong Un may also turn to a similar measures that may solidify his power amid the tough political and economic challenge, while also seeking humanitarian assistance externally.”

Bloomberg

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