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North Korea urgently needs food aid after worst harvest in decade, U.N. says

SEOUL, South Korea >> About 40% of North Korea’s population is in urgent need of food aid after the country suffered its worst harvest in a decade, the United Nations said today, even as its regime defied international sanctions in order to keep its nuclear weapons program.

The bad harvest left North Korea with a 1.36 million-ton shortage of grain, forcing its government to reduce daily state rations to less than 11 ounces per person in January, compared with 13.4 ounces a year earlier, the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization said in their joint assessment. Rations may decline further between July and September, when they are typically lower, the agencies said.

“The situation could further deteriorate during the lean season from May to September, if no proper and urgent humanitarian actions are taken,” the U.N. relief agencies said.

North Korea’s state ration system collapsed during the famine of the late 1990s, which killed up to 3 million people by some estimates. Millions of North Koreans have since learned to fend for themselves, securing food through unofficial markets. But millions still depend on the ration system, including soldiers and workers in state-run factories.

Those who remain on the state-ration system, including the elites, are believed to suffer more from international sanctions than those dependent on market activities.

Since 2016, the U.N. Security Council has imposed a series of sanctions banning the export of coal and other key North Korean products, as well as drastically curbing its oil imports. The sanctions have deprived the regime of important sources of income, and have also undercut its ability to import food to alleviate chronic food shortages.

In February, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met for the second time with President Donald Trump, hoping to win relief from sanctions in return for a partial dismantlement of his country’s nuclear weapons facilities. But the meeting collapsed after Trump refused to lift sanctions until North Korea relinquished all its nuclear weapons.

North Korea has since vowed not to buckle under international pressure even if its people have to survive on “water and air only,” state media said. Kim gave Washington until the end of the year to show more flexibility, or he said his country would seek an alternative to diplomatic negotiations.

Kim met with President Vladimir Putin of Russia last week, seeking help in tiding over international sanctions. President Xi Jinping of China has agreed to visit North Korea to meet Kim, although no date has been announced.

The bad harvest has added to the North’s trouble. Prolonged dry spells, abnormally high temperatures and floods — coupled with limited supplies of fuel, fertilizer and spare parts — seriously hurt North Korea’s harvest last fall, the U.N. agencies said.

This year’s early-season crops, to be harvested in June, have also suffered from low rainfall and other unfavorable weather.

Overall, the agencies said, an estimated 10.1 million people, or 40% of the population, are food insecure and in urgent need of assistance.

“Many families survive on a monotonous diet of rice and kimchi most of the year, eating very little protein,” said Nicolas Bidault, a World Food Program official. “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.”

Relief agencies have annually called for millions of dollars in donations to help North Koreans, especially children and nursing mothers who suffer chronic malnutrition. But international donations have dwindled in recent years as North Korea financed its nuclear weapons program with resources Washington said should have been used to feed its people.

The U.N. agencies carried out the assessment in North Korea in April, visiting cooperative farms, rural and urban households, nurseries and ration distribution centers.

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