UN urges donors to set aside North Korea political issues

People make their way along a road near Rason. (Ed Jones, AFP)
People make their way along a road near Rason. (Ed Jones, AFP)

The United Nations was able to help barely 15% of the North Koreans it aimed to support with basic food needs last year, its top official in Pyongyang said on Thursday, as donor funding dried up in the face of political tensions.

The implementation of UN Security Council sanctions also hit humanitarian work in the country, with aid supplies and financial transfers delayed or stopped, UN resident coordinator Tapan Mishra told AFP.

"We have roughly 40% of the population that are in need of humanitarian assistance," Mishra told AFP. "10.2 million people in this country need help."

The isolated North industrialised rapidly following the end of the Korean War and for a time was wealthier than the South, but funding from Moscow came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was followed by a crippling famine and chronic economic mismanagement.

Under current leader Kim Jong Un it has made rapid progress in its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, earning itself multiple sets of UN Security Council sanctions, with more measures imposed unilaterally by the US, EU, South Korea and others.

They remain in place despite a rapid diplomatic rapprochement on the peninsula, with a North-South summit due later this month ahead of talks between Kim and US President Donald Trump.

'Children stunted'

Kim has also quietly introduced some market reforms under a policy of simultaneously developing the economy and the military, with its estimated growth rate rising – the North itself does not publish the statistic – but it remains deeply impoverished.

"Undernutrition continues to be a serious concern with more than one quarter of the children stunted due to inadequate nutritious food, people struggling to have basic access to facilities including health, a large proportion of the population lives without a reliable source of safe drinking water, almost a quarter without basic sanitary facilities," Mishra said.

The UN sought $114m from donors last year for food security, nutrition, health, and water and hygiene, but received only $31m.

Out of 4.3 million people it targeted for food assistance, only 660 000 received help – just over 15%.

"We did not have the funding to support all the need, so we were only able to provide this," Mishra said, adding he had not previously seen a similar statistic during his career.

A higher proportion, two million out of a targeted 2.5 million, received nutritional support, which is cheaper to provide.

But he urged donors to delink geopolitical considerations from humanitarian decision-making, saying that "even in war", humanitarian principles have always sought to prioritise those in need.

The UN this week launched its "Needs and Priorities" assessment for North Korea this year, seeking $111m in funding.

In the foreword to the document, Mishra wrote: "The geopolitical environment has meant that the situation for many people in the country has been largely forgotten by the rest of the world."

The sanctions imposed on the North were not intended to affect civilians or restrict humanitarian activities, he added, but in practice aid was "often significantly delayed and disrupted, notably due to the perception of risk of violating the sanctions by banks, suppliers and officials".

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