Northeast Asia | North Korea: Neutrons over nutrition leave millions under-nourished

North Korea: Neutrons over nutrition leave millions under-nourished

John J. Metzler April 3, 2017 7:00 AM (UTC+8)
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While North Korea’s rulers relentlessly pursue a nuclear-weapons and missile-delivery program, large numbers of the country’s 25 million people remain poorly fed as widespread food shortages continue. The United Nations says that more than 10 million people are undernourished and that up to 18 million depend on food rations.

A stark UN humanitarian report outlines the challenges to bring food and medical aid to the reclusive country whose population faces, “A lack of access to basic services including water and sanitation, as well as a weak health infrastructure.”

Back in the 1990s more than a million North Koreans starved to death; fortunately, the current shortages don’t pose the same degree of danger.

Facing a combination of natural disasters, poor weather, and inefficient state-mandated cooperative farms, North Korea has long faced food insecurity. The UN warns, “Chronic food insecurity, early-childhood malnutrition, and nutrition insecurity are widespread in DPRK.” The report adds: “ … around 18 million people, or 70% of the population, including 1.3 million under-five children, depend on the public distribution system for rations of cereal and potatoes.”

“Most food is produced on some 3,900 cooperative farms, with 100 state farms focusing on specialized activities such as poultry or pig breeding,” the survey adds.

More that 3.5 million people lack access to sustainable drinking water, the UN adds. Children are particularly vulnerable to food shortages.

Aid totaling $114 million is sought to assist humanitarian efforts in North Korea which include six UN agencies and seven international NGOs including the International Committee of the Red Cross and European Union agencies.

Assessment and distribution of assistance remain problematic because suffocating security and regime oversight constrain aid agencies. “Travel within DPRK is strictly regulated, ” the UN report said. “International humanitarian agencies need to obtain advance clearance for any travel.”

UN sanctions have been imposed on the DPRK for its nuclear-weapons and missile-delivery programs. Will Kim Jong-un’s increasingly belligerent regime conduct another nuclear test? With the approach of the anniversary April 15 of the birth of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, Pyongyang may mark the “Day of the Sun,” the country’s most important public holiday, with its sixth atomic test.

The expected critical reaction in world capitals and calls for further sanctions against Pyongyang may be tempered by South Korea’s presidential elections in May. The leftist opposition Democratic Party of Korea is expected to return to power following the impeachment scandal and ouster of president Park Geun-hye. Would the presumed new government of Moon Jae-in revive Kim Dae-jung’s controversial “Sunshine Policy” offering economic aid and wider engagement with the North?

During the next few months it’s vital for Seoul to help de-escalate tensions on the divided peninsula. First, a revised version of the “Sunshine Policy” — Sunshine 2.0 — may be implemented to break the deadlock, but not subsidize Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian regime.

Second, find the business bottom line to reopen the dormant Kaesong Industrial Region in the North which can be a win-win for both sides. Third, revive the moribund Six Party Talks in which both Korean states and the neighboring countries, China, Russia, and Japan, and the United States try to negotiate a DPRK nuclear freeze.

Fourth, stay firm on the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile defense system in South Korea. Should the US back down on this installation, or if there is any degradation of the ROK/US military alliance, China will have reasserted its hegemony over the entire peninsula.

And finally, encourage confidence-building measures between both Korean states such as offering humanitarian aid to the North. Defusing the dangerous geopolitical situation on the Korean Peninsula will take determined diplomacy and good luck

John J. Metzler
John J. Metzler is a longtime UN correspondent covering diplomatic, defense and developmental issues. He is the author of a number of books such as Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China. He's a regular visitor to the region.
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