Fears are growing for young children and other vulnerable groups as a drought in North Korea threatens to worsen food shortages in the isolated country.
The Red Cross said the drought that began in early spring added to the woes of last year when food production fell to the lowest level in a decade. Four in 10 people in North Korea are estimated to be in urgent need of food assistance.
“We are particularly concerned about the impact that this early drought will have on children and adults who are already struggling to survive,” said Mohamed Babiker, who heads the North Korea office of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“Even before this drought, one in five children under five years old was stunted because of poor nutrition. We are concerned that these children will not be able to cope with further stress on their bodies.”
The federation also fears for pregnant and breastfeeding women, older people and those with chronic illness as the drought could exacerbate hunger, malnutrition and health problems.
North Korea’s state-run media reported that rainfall was at record lows for the first five months of the year, without saying when data collection began.
On Saturday, Korean Central Television told its viewers that the average countrywide precipitation stood at 54.4mm, or about 42% of the level in previous years. The Rodong Sinmun followed that up on Tuesday by saying crops were dying and North Korea needed “revolutionary drought damage prevention measures”.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said the worst effects of the drought would only be seen in the months ahead, while noting that food production in 2018 was 12% below the previous year. It is providing money from its disaster relief emergency fund towards the installation of water pumps.
Daniel Wallinder, a disaster risk management delegate for the federation, said it seemed clear that the current issues were related to climate change.
“What we see now is lack of snow during the winter leaving crops exposed to freezing temperatures as well as prolonged dry spells due to rainfall that is lower and less predictable,” Wallinder said in a statement.
“For people who are living on the margins, these changes can be devastating.”
David Beasley, the executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, met with South Korean ministers in Seoul on Monday and said he held “very serious concerns” about food security north of the border, the Yonhap news agency reported.
In an interview with the Guardian last month, Beasley said: “We make the case: don’t let innocent children suffer because of politics.”
South Korea’s government is considering providing food assistance, with Kim Yeon-chul, the unification minister, due to canvass the issue with civic and religious organisations on Tuesday.
But Taro Kono, Japan’s foreign minister, said last week it would be “premature” to send food aid as North Korea’s leadership was prioritising nuclear weapon and missile development over people’s welfare.
Last Thursday, North Korea launched two projectiles that the Japanese government identified as short-range ballistic missiles. It was the regime’s second test of weapons in less than a week, raising concerns over prospects of reaching a comprehensive deal on denuclearisation.