Nuclear weapons dominate politics, but near half North Koreans are undernourished

UN report says heatwave and a typhoon blighted the communist state's harvest last year

People board a packed public bus in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Almost half of North Korea's population is in need of humanitarian assistance including food, water, nutrition and basic health and sanitation needs, the UN said in a report released on Wednesday.

The stark figures underlined the communist country's domestic problems despite a recent diplomatic engagement with the United States over its atomic weapons programme.

Ruled by Kim Jong-un since the death in 2011 of his father and long-time leader Kim Jong-il, North Korea has suffered from a succession of bad harvests.

But a report by Tapan Mishara, the UN resident coordinator for the country, said a heatwave in provinces considered to be the nation's bread basket, a typhoon months later and then a series of flash floods made last year's crop haul the worst in a decade.

Food production fell nine per cent from that of 2017, according to the 2019 DPR Korea Needs and Priorities study.

“This has resulted in a significant food gap,” said Mr Mishara. Overall, an estimated 10.9 million people – 43 percent of the population – are not getting enough food.

“Widespread under nutrition threatens an entire generation of children, with one in five children stunted due to chronic under nutrition. Coupled with limited healthcare and a lack of access to safe water and sanitation and hygiene services. Children are also at risk of dying from curable diseases,” he said.

Although UN Security Council sanctions exempt humanitarian activities – a fresh round was passed in 2017 following a succession of North Korean missile tests – life saving programmes have experienced hold-ups and other problems as a direct result.

“While unintended consequences of sanctions persist, these delays have a real and tangible impact on the aid that we are able to provide,” Mr Bishara added, noting that support for North Korea was only 24 per cent funded, making it one of the world's lowest funded humanitarian plans in the world.

The 2019 aid appeal for $120 million intends to provide help for the 3.8 million North Koreans most in need of assistance.

A second summit between Mr Kim and US President Donald Trump last week failed to produce tangible progress on the denuclearisation of North Korea. The meeting of the two leaders in Hanoi ended prematurely after the North raised the subject of an early end to sanctions in exchange for decommissioning of its nuclear facilities.