South Korea has warned of a worsening humanitarian crisis and food shortages in North Korea as leader Kim Jong Un grapples with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Lee In-young, the unification minister responsible for relations with Pyongyang, called for greater international support for the country’s 25 million people as Nuclear armed state faces food security and economic pressures resulting from severe sanctions, strict border closures and damage from typhoons.
“We are watching North Korea very closely with fear of a humanitarian crisis,” Lee told the Financial Times.
The warning was issued more than a year after Pyongyang was shut down land, sea and air routes in the country and cracked down on national movements to protect its fragile health system from the pandemic.
While North Korean officials say there have been no cases of infection, the border closure has cut off trade with China, Pyongyang’s lifeline, and cut food supplies and international medical aid.
Amid declining food and fertilizer imports from China, analysts and diplomats say North Korea, already one of the poorest countries in the world, is facing its worst economic downturn since the mid-1990s – when famine killed millions of people following severe droughts and the end of Soviet support.
The severity of the food security problems now depends in part on the next harvest after an extremely cold winter.
Lee, whose ministry closely monitors North Korea’s economy, said immediate food shortages were “less likely” to reach the same extremes of the 1990s given the country’s progress. But he stressed that the international community should “consider whether North Korea’s food supply will be sustainable in the future.”
In a sign of growing pressure, Kim publicly admitted in August that his economic plans had failed and tight centerl control of the economy in response.
With a potential crisis looming, Lee suggested reassessing the effectiveness of the sanctions that were tightened by the United States in 2016 after a series of weapons tests.
“We are five years old. . . tough sanctions, so maybe it is time to see if the sanctions have contributed positively to the success of North Korea’s denuclearization process or not, ”he said.
Lee added that a “comprehensive review” should assess the impact of sanctions on the lives of ordinary North Koreans.
He also called for more international support to vaccinate North Koreans, echoing Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who urged rich countries to help provide Covid-19 jabs to poorer countries.
“The international community must understand that a country safe from Covid-19 does not mean the end of the pandemic. Countries with abundant resources should support countries which do not, ”said Lee.
The Unification Ministry is also developing plans for international support for a series of road and rail projects in North Korea.
Lee suggested that humanitarian aid sanctions exemptions could be extended, or applied more flexibly, to allow “non-commercial public infrastructure projects,” as long as Seoul could prove they would not be used by North Korean military or nuclear programs.
“AT [South] Korea, North Korea is not just a neighbor, living next door; we have the same heritage, we share the air, the land and the water. . . I sincerely hope that members of the international community will have this understanding of the unique nature of inter-Korean relations and a more favorable view of inter-Korean projects and cooperation, ”said Lee.
The proposal comes as Joe Biden’s administration is examining US policy on North Korea. Nuclear talks have stalled despite three meetings between Kim and former President Donald Trump. Kim too cut engagement with Moon Jae-in, an effort, analysts say, to force the South Korean president to offer greater concessions.