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'Alarming' drought situation

Esther Felden / sri
June 17, 2015

North Korea says it has been hit by its worst drought in a century, resulting in extensive damage to agriculture. DW speaks to German food aid agency Welthungerhilfe about the situation on the ground.

North Korea drought
Image: picture-alliance/Kyodo/Maxppp

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a report published on June 16 that the water level of reservoirs in the East Asian nation stands at the lowest, while rivers and streams are getting dry. "According to data available, rice-transplanting has been finished in over 441,560 hectares of paddy fields across the country as of June 8, but at least 136,200 hectares of them are parching up," said the state-run agency.

Moreover, the granaries, including the main rice farming regions of Hwanghae and Phyongan provinces, were drying up for lack of rain. As a result, other crops were being planted in paddy fields of drought-stricken areas as part of a campaign to contain the damage. Last week, South Korea's Unification Ministry said the North's crop production could fall by as much as 20 percent from last year if the shortage of rainfall lasts until early July.

North Korea has suffered regular chronic food shortages in the past. According to the United Nations (UN), almost a third of children under the age of five living in the impoverished country are stunted due to poor nutrition.

Simone Pott, spokesperson for the German aid food agency Welthungerhilfe, says in a DW interview that the ongoing drought is causing huge problems in the country - with some 18 million people affected by it - and adds she views the KNCA report as an attempt by Pyongyang to lure more foreign assistance into the country.

06.2013 DW Akademie Medienpreis Jury Simone Pott
Pott: 'It is clear that the situation now is much more serious and alarming than in the past years'Image: Welthungerhilfe

DW: How does Welthungerhilfe assess the current drought situation in North Korea?

Simone Pott: The situation on the ground in North Korea is quite alarming due to the drought. In June, a fact-finding mission composed of various aid organizations, the United Nations, and North Korean authorities visited several areas in the country's south and found the situation there to be quite dramatic.

I believe the situation in the north part of the country, where there are relatively fewer resources for agricultural production, is even worse than in the south.

Is the situation comparable to the times when North Korea faced famines and food shortages causing millions of deaths, according to some estimates?

It is very difficult to make such estimations in the case of North Korea. Welthungerhilfe began operating in North Korea at the end of the 1990s - a time when the country faced a difficult food situation. In order to compare the current crisis with those of the recent past, we need nationwide data which is currently unavailable. There is a limited amount of information on those parts of the country visited by the international aid teams, but apart from that there are no concrete data to help us to gain an overview of the current drought situation.

How do you explain the reason behind the timing of the KNCA report?

We cannot pinpoint the exact reason for this move. But it is clear that the situation now is much more serious and alarming than in the past years. The country has faced food shortages for a long time given the structural challenges facing the country in terms of food production and distribution.

Nordkorea - Kinderbespeisung
Almost a third of children under the age of five living in the impoverished country are stunted due to poor nutrition, says the UNImage: Getty Images

However, the current drought conditions have worsened the already poor state of affairs in the country. And it has also overwhelmed the state's food apparatus. I believe the North Korean leadership has realized that the situation has deteriorated to such a level that it will not be able to solve the problem without outside support.

So the report in state media reflects a desire on the part of Pyongyang to draw more foreign support?

That's true. As I said earlier, there was an international mission also with UN representatives, and it is relatively clear that the country should receive foreign assistance. There must be a common approach, and data has to be gathered from the rest of the country.

There has to be a joint plan to alleviate the acute hunger and food shortages now afflicting the country. Structural changes should also be made given that such drought conditions are set to occur more frequently in the future due to climate change.

What kind of structural reforms have to be implemented?

North Korea has to implement a host of structural reforms such as changing land-ownership rules and adopting farming techniques that require less water consumption which could help the country boost its agricultural yields and overcome the problem of food shortages.

How difficult has it been for Welthungerhilfe to operate in North Korea?

Our organization has been present in North Korea for almost 20 years now. Despite the difficulties of working in the country, we have realized that it is possible to successfully carry out our activities aimed at improving the food situation in the country. In the case of North Korea, there are of course additional issues involving what international NGOs can do, which type of projects they can engage in etc. But that is part of operating in North Korea.

Logo der Welthungerhilfe
North Korea expelled the country director of Welthungerhilfe this AprilImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Oliver Berg

North Korea expelled the country director of Welthungerhilfe this April. How is the organization dealing with this and what is the current state of affairs?

We are engaged in intensive discussions with the North Korean authorities on this issue. We are currently looking to fill this vacancy and looking for candidates suited for the job who are willing to relocate to North Korea. As soon as someone is chosen, that person shall be able to take up the job in the country without any issues. The organization shall also be able to restart the projects that have remained on hold since the incident.

Simone Pott is spokesperson for the German agency Welthungerhilfe, one of the few foreign aid organizations operating in North Korea.

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