North Korean farmers cite grave drought; aid unlikely

May 29, 2012, Tuesday/ 13:23:00

North Korea is mobilizing workers to irrigate farms and repair wells as officials report a serious drought that could worsen already critical food shortages. Help, however, is unlikely to come from the United States and South Korea following Pyongyang's widely criticized rocket launch.

North Korea has had little rain since April 27, with the country's western coastal areas particularly hard hit, according to a government weather agency in Pyongyang. The dry spell threatened to damage crops, officials said, as the country enters a critical planting season and as food supplies from the last harvest dwindle.

In at least one area of South Phyongan Province where journalists from The Associated Press were allowed to visit, the sun-baked fields appeared parched and cracked, and farmers complained of extreme drought conditions. Deeply tanned men, and women in sun bonnets, worked over cabbages and corn seedlings. Farmers cupped individual seedlings as they poured water from blue buckets onto the parched red soil. "I've been working at the farm for more than 30 years, but I have never experienced this kind of severe drought," An Song Min, a farmer at the Tokhae Cooperative Farm in the Nampho area, told the AP.

It was not clear whether the conditions around Nampho were representative of a wider region. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization said it had not yet visited the affected regions to confirm the extent and severity of the reported drought. North Korea has long had chronic food shortages and suffered a famine in the mid- and late-1990s, the FAO and World Food Program said in a special report late last year. North Korean state media has publicized the drought but hasn't asked for international handouts. The country's past appeals for food aid have been met with some skepticism, however, and the US State Department has expressed worry that aid would be diverted to the military and Pyongyang elite without reaching the hungry.

The US government suspended food handouts to North Korea in 2009 after Pyongyang expelled foreign food distribution monitors. In February, the US reversed course and agreed to provide 240,000 metric tons of food aid in exchange for a freeze in nuclear and missile activities. However, the deal collapsed after North Korea launched a long-range rocket last month in what it called a failed attempt to send a satellite into space to study the weather.

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