News / Asia

Aid Groups Express Concern About North Korea's Harsh Winters

South Korean charities providing aid to North Korea are concerned that the harsh winter may be causing significant deaths in the impoverished communist state. The groups are optimistic, however, they will soon get permission from the South for a meeting in Pyongyang to discuss a full resumption of humanitarian aid.

The leader of an umbrella group for South Korean private aid organizations says unusually severe winter weather is taking its toll on North Koreans.

Park Hyun-seok is secretary general of the Korea NGO Council for Cooperation with North Korea.

Park says he has learned from various reports and sources, including in the South Korean government that North Koreans are dying from the cold and the food situation is even worse than the hardship experienced in 1995.

Famine in the mid-1990 is believed to have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Since then North Korea has been dependent on foreign food as a result of natural disasters and mismanagement of its economy.

In recent weeks, temperatures have remained below freezing on much of the Korean peninsula.

North Korea’s official news agency has reported that the historic cold is causing hardship for “people’s lives” and could severely hamper spring farming.

United Nations aid agencies began warning several months ago that millions in the country face food shortages, and say that undernourishment in North Korea is rampant. But they have not publicly reported unusual patterns of disease or health conditions this winter.

After military actions by North Korea last year, Seoul cut off all but a minimal trickle of aid for infants and the most vulnerable adults.

The NGO Council, representing 56 aid groups, says it expects next week to get permission from the South Korean government to attend a meeting next month in the North.

Pyongyang last month asked the council for talks in early February on resuming assistance. The authorities there also promised to allow South Korean aid groups to inspect food distribution centers to ensure transparency.

Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo says inspections must be agreed on before Seoul lets aid resume.

She says Pyongyang also needs to demonstrate a responsible attitude for last year’s acts of aggression and promise not to repeat them. If that happens then aid from the South could be resumed at the levels that were in place before May 24, when trade and aid supplies were suspended.

North Korea is blamed for the sinking of a South Korean navy ship last March, and it shelled a South Korean island, killing four people, in November. It denies blame in the ship sinking, and says it fired on the island in response to South Korean military activity.

Council leader Park says Pyongyang’s willingness to allow unprecedented inspections of distribution sites would be significant for other reasons.

Park says it is a symbolic measure through which the humanitarian groups could show the South Korean people and a skeptical international community that aid is being distributed to the right people. He says the resumption of assistance could help re-start official inter-Korean talks.

South Korea, the United States, Japan and the European Union were the leading donors to North Korea for much of the late 1990s and early part of the last decade. But their contributions fell sharply after they discovered that Pyongyang was operating a secret nuclear weapons program.

The international community has imposed numerous sanctions on the reclusive country for its nuclear program, missile testing, arms trading and other illicit activities. That has North Korea dependent on China for its economic survival.

There are no diplomatic ties between the two Koreas, which fought a civil war in the early 1950s. The conflict ended with a truce and no peace treaty has ever been signed.

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