A peace agreement with North Korea will go far toward easing the impoverished nation's chronic food security woes, the head of the United Nations' World Food Program said Friday, a month before President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a historic summit in Singapore.
Fresh from a four-day visit to the North, Executive Director David Beasley also told The Associated Press that he detected a "certain degree of euphoria" among the North Koreans he met and a feeling of momentum toward a better future.
"This is a very important time in world history and let's all hope that we can move forward and put this page in history completely behind us," he said in an interview in China's capital, Beijing.
The former South Carolina governor said a positive outcome to talks with the U.S. and others would reassure donors that aid was reaching those who needed it most. And if it leads to the lifting of U.N. economic sanctions imposed over the North's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, the country's food situation would improve further.
"If we can put these nuclearization and political issues behind us, I believe that the world can come together and the citizens and people of [North Korea] will have a brighter future," Beasley said. "If a deal can be reached and the sanctions can be lifted, I believe the opportunities are great."
Washington hopes the summit will lead to the North abandoning its nuclear weapons program, something Kim has said he would consider if he was provided with security assurances. Though an agreement remains elusive, the simple fact that the leaders of the long-time adversaries plan to meet has given rise to hopes for a turning point in tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Around 10 million of North Korea's 25 million people have humanitarian needs, and problems such as malnutrition, anemia, under-nutrition and stunting are severe, Beasley said. While such woes are common in other food-insecure countries, North Korea faces the added hardship of being mostly mountainous, forcing its citizens to cultivate every scrap of arable land, Beasley said. North Korean agriculture is also characterized by a near-total reliance on human and animal labor and a lack of fertilizers and other inputs.
"I've never seen more people work so hard in my life," said Beasley, who departed North Korea via a six-hour drive over bumpy roads to the Chinese border in order to better view conditions in the countryside.
Floods and droughts were contributing factors in the disastrous famines in the 1990s that nearly brought North Korea to economic ruin, heightened by much broader economic and political difficulties related to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, which had been some of North Korea's most important trading partners and allies.
A study by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011 estimated the number of deaths between 1993 and 2000 at around half a million, although other estimates ranged much higher.
Beasley said there have been vast improvements since then, though poor rains last season limited the amount of food available this year.