In Rare Public Admission, North Korea Warns of Worst Drought in Century

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In Rare Public Admission, North Korea Warns of Worst Drought in Century

With food shortages getting worse, aid agency says 'it is clear that the situation now is much more serious and alarming than in the past years'

In this June 22, 2012 file photo, rice plants grow from the cracked and dry earth in Ryongchon-ri in North Korea's Hwangju County. (Photo: AP)

The state news agency of North Korea announced Tuesday that the country is experiencing its worst drought in a century, exacerbating chronic food shortages and drying up rice paddies—imperiling a major sustenance crop in a country where one third of children under five are already stunted due to malnourishment.

"The worst drought in 100 years continues in the DPRK, causing great damage to its agricultural field," the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said, using the short form for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"Water levels of reservoirs stand at the lowest, while rivers and streams are getting dry," KCNA reported on Tuesday, adding that the drought had caused about 30 percent of its rice paddies—which need to be partially submerged in water—to dry up.

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According to the Guardian, an official from South Korea's unification ministry said rainfall in North Korea was abnormally low in May and that its production of rice and potatoes could decline by as much as 20 percent compared to average years if the shortage of rainfall extends to early July. The official could not confirm North Korea's claim that it was experiencing its worst drought in a century.

But in an interview with Deutsche Welle, a spokesperson for the German aid food agency Welthungerhilfe—one of few such agencies operating in North Korea—confirmed that the situation on the ground is indeed "quite alarming."

"In June, a fact-finding mission composed of various aid organizations, the United Nations, and North Korean authorities visited several areas in the country's south and found the situation there to be quite dramatic," said Welthungerhilfe's Stephanie Potts. "I believe the situation in the north part of the country, where there are relatively fewer resources for agricultural production, is even worse than in the south."

As news reports pointed out, North Korea's population was already suffering from food shortages and malnourishment. Reuters notes that North Korea suffered a deadly famine in the 1990s and has relied on international food aid for decades, "but support has fallen sharply in recent years because of its restrictions on humanitarian workers and reluctance to allow monitoring of food distribution."

As the BBC's Stephen Evans noted that "[i]t is unusual for North Korea to talk openly of its shortages so the very appearance of the report in state media is significant. It indicates the situation is serious, and it may well indicate that North Korea wants outside help."

While Potts acknowledged that North Korea "has faced food shortages for a long time given the structural challenges facing the country in terms of food production and distribution," she added that "it is clear that the situation now is much more serious and alarming than in the past years."

"[T]he current drought conditions have worsened the already poor state of affairs in the country," Potts said. "And it has also overwhelmed the state's food apparatus. I believe the North Korean leadership has realized that the situation has deteriorated to such a level that it will not be able to solve the problem without outside support."

Potts said immediate assistance as well as structural changes were in order, given that "such drought conditions are set to occur more frequently in the future due to climate change."

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