Weather and Natural Disasters

North Korea says drought worst in 100 years

Song Jung-a
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images

North Korea has been hit by its worst drought in a century, state media say, raising fears of another looming food crisis in the impoverished communist country.

North Korea has suffered from long-running food shortages since a disastrous famine in the mid-1990s that is believed to have killed as many as 1 million people. The country's agriculture remains in a fragile state, heavily influenced by weather conditions and worsened by the regime's poor economic management.

The drought has devastated agricultural land in Hwanghae and Pyongan provinces, Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency said, noting that more than 30 per cent of rice paddies across the country were "parching up".

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"The worst drought in 100 years continues in the DPRK, causing great damage," the KCNA said. "The water level of reservoirs stands at the lowest, while rivers and streams [are] getting dry."

Last week Seoul's unification ministry estimated that North Korea's crop output could fall by up to 20 per cent this year if the drought continues until next month.

Rainfall hit a 15-year low last year, 40 per cent below the average rainfall between 1981 and 2010, the ministry said. The World Food Program, the UN food agency, is preparing to send emergency assistance if the situation deteriorates.

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The UN has said that chronic food shortages have left about a third of North Korean children stunted because of malnutrition, with two-thirds of the population enduring "chronic food insecurity".

But international funding for North Korean aid is drying up, held back by concerns over its nuclear ambitions and Pyongyang's restriction of aid workers' access to the needy. The UN called in April for $111 million to fund crucial humanitarian needs in North Korea this year, with funding for its agencies in North Korea falling from $300 million in 2004 to less than $50 million in 2014.

However, food security is not as precarious as in previous droughts, analysts say, with private farming playing a growing role in the country's economy. New farming rules allow North Koreans to run small family farms and keep surplus crops, while markets have sprung up nationwide fuelled by such surplus income.

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"About 400,000-500,000 tons of food shortages are expected this year due to the drought," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "But the food shortages are not likely to be as severe as those of the 1990s because North Koreans are reacting to it more resiliently, with more private farming allowed."