North Korean agriculture has been hurt so severely by drought and lack of fertilizer that the hunger-stricken country could require massive food aid for at least another year, an aid official said Tuesday.
The autumn harvest is expected to be poor, and shortages of farm chemicals and healthy workers could result in drastically reduced spring planting, said Kathi Zellweger, Hong Kong director of the aid group Caritas.
“Next year will not be any better. I rather think it’s going to be worse,” said Zellweger, who returned Tuesday from her 13th trip to the reclusive communist nation.
North Korea has suffered three years of poor harvests. Drought and flooding have compounded years of economic mismanagement and the loss of aid from the former Soviet Union.
North Korea said it has lost 1.8 million tons of corn and rice to drought and tidal waves this year - about one-third of the annual needs of its 24 million people. After a summer with only a few days of rain, the few foreigners allowed into North Korea have described bone-dry reservoirs and river beds.
Information on conditions in North Korea is scarce. The government has not released new figures since July, when it said 37 percent of children under age 6 were malnourished. It said 134 children died last year of hunger.
Hundreds of thousands of tons of donated food has averted widespread starvation, but the danger of disease in the hunger-weakened population remains high, Zellweger said.
“The situation has stabilized somewhat, but it will take very little for the country to relapse,” she said. “If we have a major epidemic or even a severe flu, that would have disastrous consequences.”
Zellweger showed reporters pictures of hollow-eyed children with stick-like limbs and stunted growth. She said many had coughs and runny noses.
Even though international food aid has helped save malnourished children’s lives, the good is being undone by poor water and sanitation systems, UNICEF and the World Food Program said Tuesday.
The two agencies have spent nearly $14.3 million since April to provide emergency food and medical supplies to 2.6 million children under the age of 6.