UNITED NATIONS: North Korea has cut food rations to their lowest level ever for this time of year and may be forced to further slash them without international aid, a United Nations report warned on Friday.

About 10.1 million North Koreans — 40 percent of the population — suffer from severe food shortages following the worst harvest in a decade, according to an assessment by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Food Programme.

Experts from the two UN organisations travelled to North Korea in April and in November 2018 to carry out the food security assessment, visiting cooperative farms, rural and urban areas and distribution centres.

The WFP-FAO team found that the government food distribution system — on which a large portion of the population relies — had been forced to cut rations to 300 grams per person per day since January, down from 380 grams during the same period in 2018.

Many families eat very little protein, surviving on a diet of rice and kimchi cabbage most of the year.

“This is worrying because many communities are already extremely vulnerable and any further cuts to already minimal food rations, could push them deep into a hunger crisis,” said Nicolas Bidault, who co-led the mission.

“There are concerns that in the absence of substantial external assistance, rations may be further cut during the critical months of June-October, at the peak of the lean season,” said the report.

Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans died during a devastating famine in the 1990. The country has been struggling for decades with food shortages that the West blames on Pyongyang’s leaders.

North Korea’s crop production is estimated this year at 4.9 metric tons, the lowest yield since the 2008-2009 season and 12 percent below the near-average level for last year.

The report warned the food crisis could become critical in the coming months and concluded that a “humanitarian intervention is therefore urgently required to mitigate the food production shortfall.” The harvest losses were attributed to dry spells, heatwaves and flooding, but the report also pointed to sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council as having an “unintended negative impact” on agriculture.

Sanctions such as a ban on imports of fuel, machinery and spare parts have hit farmers hard, reducing irrigation that protects crops from heatwaves and droughts.

The report is expected to revive calls, possibly from Russia, for the Security Council to grant more sanctions exemptions for humanitarian aid.

The United States, European countries and Japan blame North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of pouring funds into its nuclear and ballistic weapons programmes, instead of feeding his people.

The United Nations has launched an appeal for $120 million to fund humanitarian aid to North Korea in 2019, but it has only received six percent of that amount, mostly from Russia.

Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2019

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