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Skeptics Wonder if North Korea is Exaggerating Drought Impact

FILE - A farmer carries a fully grown cabbage after plucking it out from the main crop which will be harvested early next month, and used to make Kimchi, at the Chilgol vegetable farm on the outskirts of Pyongyang, North Korea, Oct. 24, 2014.

There is some debate as to whether North Korea is being sincere or manipulative when it reported that the country is experiencing the “worst drought in 100 years.” While the international community has responded with increased offers of food aid, skeptics wonder if Pyongyang is exaggerating the drought’s impact to get around sanctions imposed for its nuclear program and other provocative acts.

In June, the United Nations started raising alarms that a severe drought is expected to cause extensive food shortages in North Korea. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that harvests of staple crops like potato, wheat and barley could be cut in half.

This week, at the same time that Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the U.N. Human Rights High Commissioner, criticized the leadership in Pyongyang for committing systematic abuses and atrocities against its own people, he also voiced concern about the real potential for another famine in North Korea.

“People of the DPRK are facing what appears to be the worst drought in living memory compounded by disastrous agricultural practices and chronic economic mismanagement,” said Hussein.

In the 1990s about a million North Koreans died in a famine caused in part by floods and by mismanagement of the collective farming system in place.

Hussein noted that even before this current drought, more than 70 percent of North Koreans live on the edge of poverty and 25 percent of its children are chronically malnourished. He called for increased and unconditional international food aid.

"To avert the extremely high risk of famine, the government must engage with its neighbors and with humanitarian agencies, and they should reciprocate with support. The right to food, the right to health, and other social and economic rights are just as important as civil and political rights,” he said.

North Korea also recently acknowledged that it is facing a severe drought. In the past it was rare and unusual for the isolated communist government to admit any failure or weakness to its state run economy.

But Andrei Lankov, a North Korea historian and professor at Kookmin University, said in recent years Pyongyang has overstated significant flooding events and droughts to garner international assistance. He is skeptical about claims that this year’s drought will cause famine-like conditions.

“The genuine reports about droughts are correct but the scale and potential damage is almost likely exaggerated in order to get more aid and they do need aid. Again, don’t misinterpret me, they do need aid,” said Lankov.

Lankov said the North Korean agricultural system has been decentralized and incentivized in the last decade. Farmers are able to keep and sell 30 percent of their crops, and he says agricultural production has soared from producing 3 million tons of cereal during the famine to over 5 million tons in the last two years.

“If you look at what’s actually happening in the North Korean agriculture and it’s not North Korean reports it’s official estimates by the U.N. mission, you see a steady growth, a steady improvement of their situation in the country,” he said.

Lankov said that while poverty and malnutrition are commonplace, reports of famine and natural disasters are overstated as a way to get around economic sanctions.

North Korea is under U.N. sanctions for pursuing a nuclear weapons program. South Korea halted most economic assistance after Seoul accused Pyongyang of sinking a South Korean warship and killing 46 sailors. North Korea has denied any involvement in the attack.

Other International aid for North Korea has decreased in recent years, in part because of its curbs on humanitarian workers and reluctance to allow monitoring of food distribution.

In response to this year’s drought, South Korea is offering support to the North if needed, but added that Pyongyang must request assistance. China said it also willing to provide aid.

VOA Seoul Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.