The United Nations was able to help barely 15% of the North Koreans it aimed to support with basic food needs last year, its top official in Pyongyang said yesterday, as donor funding dried up in the face of political tensions.  The implementation of UN Security Council sanctions also hit humanitarian work in the country, with aid supplies and financial transfers delayed or stopped, UN resident co-ordinator Tapan Mishra told AFP.
 “We have roughly 40% of the population that are in need of humanitarian assistance,” Mishra told AFP. “10.3mn people in this country need help.”
 The isolated North industrialised rapidly following the end of the Korean War and for a time was wealthier than the South. But funding from Moscow came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was followed by a crippling famine and chronic economic mismanagement.  Under current leader Kim Jong-un it has made rapid progress in its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, earning itself multiple sets of UN Security Council sanctions, with more measures imposed unilaterally by the US, EU, South Korea and others.
 The impoverished North has been frequently condemned by the international community for decades of prioritising the military and its nuclear weapons programme over adequately providing for its people — an imbalance some critics say the UN’s aid programme encourages. 
 The latest sanctions remain in place despite a rapid diplomatic rapprochement on the peninsula, with a North-South summit due later this month ahead of talks between Kim and US President Donald Trump.  Kim has also quietly introduced some market reforms under a policy of simultaneously developing the economy and the military, with its estimated growth rate rising — the North itself does not publish the statistic — but it remains deeply poverty-stricken.
 “Undernutrition continues to be a serious concern with more than one quarter of the children stunted due to inadequate nutritious food, people struggling to have basic access to facilities including health, a large proportion of the population lives without a reliable source of safe drinking water, almost a quarter without basic sanitary facilities,” Mishra said. The UN sought $114mn from donors last year for food security, nutrition, health, and water and hygiene, but received only $31mn.
 Out of 4.3mn people it targeted for food assistance, only 660,000 received help -- just over 15%. “We did not have the funding to support all the need, so we were only able to provide this,” Mishra said, adding he had not previously seen a similar statistic during his career.
 A higher proportion, 2mn out of a targeted 2.5mn, received nutritional support, which is cheaper to provide.  But he urged donors to delink geopolitical considerations from humanitarian decision-making, saying that “even in war”, humanitarian principles have always sought to prioritise those in need.
 “Humanitarian considerations should be separate,” he said, “regardless of all the geopolitical issues”.  The UN this week launched its “Needs and Priorities” assessment for North Korea this year, seeking $111mn in funding.  In the foreword to the document, Mishra, who is Indian, wrote: “The geopolitical environment has meant that the situation for many people in the country has been largely forgotten by the rest of the world.”
The sanctions imposed on the North were not intended to affect civilians or restrict humanitarian activities, he added, but in practice aid supplies and payments were “often significantly delayed and disrupted, notably due to the perception of risk of violating the sanctions by banks, suppliers and officials”.  Even hand-driven tractors provided by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation had been held up at the border, he told AFP.
 Experts say that North Korea needs to produce around 6.5-6.7mn tonnes of food to feed its population, but usually grows around 1mn tonnes less than that, leading to chronic shortfalls.
 Aid agencies used to class all those who relied on the country’s Public Distribution System — 18mn people — as facing food insecurity.
 The state-controlled ration usually provides far less than its goal of 573 grammes of food a day. But North Koreans also have access to other sources of food, such as private markets and land plots.  Under the international standards of the FAO’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, 10.3 million North Koreans are now considered to be undernourished.
 The North faces geographical challenges — less than 20% of its land is suitable for agriculture, with most of the rest made up of mountains and forest, and it is sometimes hit by droughts and floods.  But its agriculture is officially still run on a co-operative farm system and crop yields are relatively low. It has benefited from few of the global advances in agricultural technology, fertilisers and seeds of recent decades. Such assistance would be considered development aid rather than humanitarian, and so is not possible under sanctions.

Kim Jong-un absent from Parliament meet

Kim Jong-un was notably absent from the North Korean legislature’s spring session, according to media reports yesterday. The North Korean leader’s name did not appear on a list published by state media naming those who attended Wednesday’s meeting in Pyongyang. While Kim’s presence is not obligatory, he has attended six of eight parliamentary sessions since taking power at the end of 2011, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said before the meeting.
It is unclear whether his absence was related to North Korea’s planned summit meetings with representatives from South Korea and the US.
The preparations for Kim’s meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27 and US President Donald Trump a month later have sparked a plethora of diplomatic activity. Kim took his first official trip abroad as leader last March, visiting Chinese President Xi Jingping to draw support from Beijing. Moon and Trump want Kim to commit to concrete steps to reduce the North Korean nuclear programme.
Neither the meetings nor the nuclear programme were mentioned in the reports from Wednesday’s parliamentary session. Those present instead discussed the achievements and objectives of 2016’s Five-Year Strategy for Economic Recovery and Public Finances.
The Supreme People’s Assembly usually meets only once or twice a year, usually to ratify government decisions, such as budget proposals and personnel decisions.

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