North Korea Drought: Lowest Rainfall in 100 Years Leaves Millions at Risk of Starvation

North Korea farms drought rainfall starvation
A photo taken on Febraury 12, 2019 shows a general view of the landscape and farmland north of Pyongyang, North Korea, from the window of an aircraft. ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea's worst drought in decades is being driven by the lowest rainfall in a century, according to the country's official state newspaper.

The South Korean Yonhap news agency reported that on Friday, North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper—the official publication of Kim Jong Un's ruling party—blamed the ongoing drought on lower than expected levels of precipitation, which the United Nations said has put millions in urgent need of food aid.

The Rodong Sinmun said North Korea received just 56.3 millimeters (2.21 inches) of rain or snow from January to May 15, the lowest amount since 1917.

"We expect rain to fall twice by the end of May due to low pressure in the northern area, but we don't think it will rain enough to overcome drought," a weather expert told the newspaper. "Such weather conditions will likely continue into early June."

The newspaper noted that water was running out in the country's lakes and reservoirs, and explained the lack of rainfall "is causing a significant effect on the cultivation of wheat, barley, corn, potatoes and beans," according to Al Jazeera.

On Wednesday, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)—North Korea's official state news body—reported even lower precipitation between January and early May. The agency said the country had received 54.4 millimeters (2.14 inches) of rain or snow. This was, it said, the lowest since the 51.2 millimeters (2 inches) recorded in the same period in 1982.

Yonhap reported that South Korean authorities are preparing to send food to North Korea if the situation deteriorates. Any food aid may give a shot in the arm to stalled negotiations between the North, South and U.S. on the denuclearization of the peninsula and the lifting of sanctions, the agency noted.

South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong said Friday that the "issue of food aid should be considered from a humanitarian perspective as fellow Koreans, regardless of the security issues."

Earlier this month, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Programme (WFP) said more than 10 million North Koreans—representing some 40 percent of the national population—were already facing severe food shortages. Such an extensive drought would likely exacerbate such food pressures, leaving many at risk of starvation.

The report said that North Koreans have been surviving on just 300 grams (10.5 ounces) of food each day so far this year. The agencies warned that due to the worst harvest in 10 years, dry spells, heat waves and flooding, more than 10 million people "do not have enough food until the next harvest."

During a visit to South Korea earlier this week, WFP Executive Director David Beasley told reporters the body has "very serious concerns" about the situation in North Korea.

Last week, Mohamed Babiker, the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies' North Korea office, said the organization was "particularly concerned about the impact that this early drought will have on children and adults who are already struggling to survive."

"Even before this drought, one in five children under 5 years old was stunted because of poor nutrition. We are concerned that these children will not be able to cope with further stress on their bodies," Babiker said.

Thus far, there is no suggestion the drought could spark a famine as severe as the one that is believed to have killed millions of North Koreans in the 1990s.

Oliver Hotham from NK News told the BBC, "It's not really clear how bad things are as, with everything related to North Korea, the data is hardly transparent." Hothman added that if official data is correct, North Korea will need to import more than 1.5 million tons of food to cover the production gaps.