North among most vulnerable to virus’s impact on economy

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North among most vulnerable to virus’s impact on economy

North Korea is among the world’s poorest countries most vulnerable to the economic crunch induced by the novel coronavirus outbreak, said the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) in a report on Wednesday.

At a time when an estimated 821 million people are subject to chronic food insecurity, the Covid-19 pandemic may engender a major economic downturn that could severely disrupt trade flows of basic food commodities across the globe, the report said.

North Korea, the report cited, is among 49 poor countries in danger of facing a resultant food crisis, as it has an estimated 12.2 million people who are chronically undernourished. Only Nigeria, Bangladesh and Ethiopia have greater populations at risk, according to a table included in the report.

“For many poor countries, the economic consequences will be more devastating than the disease itself,” the report said.

“Covid-19 is unfolding from a global health into an economic emergency - and could further unravel into a food security emergency if supply chain disruptions lead to panic buying and anxiety starts to rule global food trade.”

Though food production in certain countries may be affected by the outbreak, a greater danger are the challenges posed to logistical networks through which food commodities are shipped worldwide, the report said. Disruptions to normal functioning at crucial ports has already been observed, it added.

In light of such risks, the report recommended humanitarian groups closely monitor food markets and consider cash-based transfers as a standard response.

In its annual “State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World” report from last year, the WFP, along with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and other UN-affiliated entities, said 47.8 percent of North Korea’s population was undernourished from 2016 to 2018.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, which recently approved the dispatch of around 100 million won ($81,000) worth of hand sanitizer to the North by a domestic private organization, said it was aware of the WFP report but had little to add.

“As we watch the situation unfold, we will assess comprehensive methods by which we can realize inter-Korean cooperation at an appropriate level,” said a ministry official.

While Seoul has been supportive in providing food aid to the North in years prior, a domestic coronavirus outbreak has narrowed the South Korean government’s leverage in pursuing inter-Korean aid projects.

In response to rumors that the government was planning to send North Korea face masks, the Unification Ministry official said no such plans were in place.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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