Nobody is quite sure how many people died in the famine that struck North Korea in the mid-'90s, but estimates range from hundreds of thousands to more than 3 million. While economic mismanagement was as much of a factor in the crisis as the weather, a severe drought currently affecting some of the country's main food-producing areas has rekindled fears of possible mass starvation.
In Upnha, a normally fertile area an hour's drive north of Pyongyang, a photographer from the Associated Press recently witnessed cracked, dry fields were flooded rice paddies can usually be found. A large lake used to irrigate the surrounding farmland was nearly drained.
Because of the extreme secrecy that persists in the Hermit Kingdom, it's unclear if conditions are the same elsewhere in the country, but the North Korean regime is sounding the alarm, calling the situation "the worst drought in 100 years." State news agency KCNA recently issued a report that said more than 30 percent of rice paddies around the country were "parching up" because of a lack of rain. South Korea has said that rainfall in the North was unusually low in May, which could cause a decline in food production.
North Korean authorities agreed to let the AP visit an area that the government has described as particularly hard-hit by the drought, and local officials accompanied the journalist during the trip.
The US and South Korea have reduced humanitarian aid to Kim Jong-un's regime in recent years over the country's persistent threats and continued nuclear weapons development. Funding for UN agencies that deliver aid to North Korea fell to less than $50 million in 2014, down from $300 million a decade earlier. On Tuesday, North Korea sought help from Iran, and will reportedly receive a food aid package from Tehran.
While hunger is still a major issue in North Korea — 28 percent of children under 5 are chronically malnourished, according to UNICEF — reforms have allowed North Koreans to keep more of their crops for themselves, lessening the likelihood of another horrific famine. Activity in unofficial markets has also helped the economy.
Farmers interviewed by the Associated Press said they are turning away from rice farming, growing corn instead. They're also reportedly trying to tap underground water sources to help rice seedlings that have already been planted survive.
"With the hardship this year, farmers have a lot of difficulties in trying to make the farm work, because we haven't had this kind of experience before," Kim Gyong Nam, a work team leader at Unpha town farm, told the AP. "This year, because of the severe drought, we could not do rice farming, so we ploughed the land again and had to plant corn."
South Korea's Unification Ministry, which works toward reuniting North and South Korea, said a continued drought could cause North Korea's rice and potato production to decline by as much as 20 percent compared to previous years. While last year was the driest in North Korea since 2000, irrigation and a lack of floods — which can destroy terraced fields — helped avoid a significant drop in food production.
Still, the Kim regime continues to spend heavily on missiles and the military instead of feeding its people, and many fear that inefficiencies in the agricultural system, which is heavily reliant on foreign aid, mean another disaster is just waiting to happen.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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