March 25, 2011 5:09 pm

Quarter of North Koreans starving, warns UN

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A quarter of North Korea’s 24m people are starving and the public food distribution system could run dry as early as May, the UN has concluded.

Friday’s warning of an impending food crisis poses a dilemma for South Korea and western nations, which have argued that Pyongyang could be exaggerating its needs to extract aid which could be channelled to the army.

Western diplomats said they would consider humanitarian aid but only if Pyongyang allowed intrusive inspections to ensure that supplies do not head to the military. This is a highly sensitive issue after North Korea last year sank a South Korean warship and launched an artillery bombardment against a South Korean island. Fifty people died in the two attacks.

The UN’s World Food Programme concluded in November that North Korea’s 2010-2011 harvest would be 3 per cent higher than 2009. But the WFP has revised its appraisal and offered a gloomier picture of North Korean food supplies, saying the bitter winter killed seeds for spring harvests of wheat and barley.

The UN had expected the total cereal shortfall to be 867,000 tonnes in November but has now increased this estimate by 219,000 tonnes. It also reported that the cash-strapped North was importing less grain than expected and had only bought 40,000 tonnes of the 325,000 tonnes it said it would purchase last autumn.

A senior South Korean security official urged donor nations to be cautious about the report, saying the North Koreans were deceiving foreign inspectors on controlled tours.

“North Korea is building up stockpiles while allowing children to starve,” he said.

South Korea’s government believes North Korea is hoarding food in preparation for 2012, when it will style itself a “mighty and prosperous nation” in honour of the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the nation. “They want a feast in 2012 and they want us to provide it,” he said.

Both South Korea and western nations say they separate issues of humanitarian aid from Pyongyang’s nuclear programme and last year’s attacks. However, aid has reduced to a trickle because patience is running out with Pyongyang. North Korea puts strict control on aid agencies, forbidding any foreign Korean speakers to work with them.

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