COMMENT:

The visit of the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, to New Zealand this week is an opportunity for Kiwis to reflect on our understanding of the Korean Peninsula and our role there. Much of talk has focused on the denuclearisation of the North. The reconciliation process between North and South has also rightly received some attention, although not enough. That is arguably more important.

But there is also a forgotten crisis, 6.5 million people in the Democratic Republic of Korea, as North Korea is officially known, suffer from lack of adequate nutrition. One out of five are "stunted" or suffer from the effects of malnutrition.

The United Nations Population Fund's 2017 world population report notes the maternity mortality rate is eight times higher in North Korea than in South Korea and increasing. Tuberculosis is a growing problem, but one which would be easily resolved with appropriate drug supplies.

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The reasons for these appalling figures include the lack of medical treatment facilities and medicines, the effects of lifelong malnutrition, endemic poverty, the lack of long-term economic development and the effect of sanctions.

Some things have improved. There is now easier access to many previously inaccessible counties. Immunisation coverage has widened significantly. Nevertheless, in March this year the UN called urgently for $111 million to address the food, health and sanitation needs of the most vulnerable, including 1.7 million children under the age of 5 and 340,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women.

But only Canada, Sweden, France, Russia and Switzerland have contributed so far towards the UN fund. Only 20.6 per cent of the target has been reached. Total humanitarian aid has in fact fallen from $103.9m in 2012 to $22.9m this year. Kindergarten nutrition programmes have ceased because of a lack of funds.

Several nations, such as Australia and the United States, have refused aid to North Korea. Expressed concerns are that aid will be diverted to the military or used to fund missiles. Aid, it is argued, will take pressure off the regime to feed its people.

But evidence and experience suggests the potential for such diversion, while possible, is not large. Supplies can and do reach the intended recipients. The regime is prepared, it seems, to work with aid agencies to better the lives of their people.

They too have to feed their families.

This crisis need not exist even if we think economic sanctions are needed. Under UN resolutions humanitarian aid is exempt from them. In emergencies, such as the recent flooding and famine, North Korean authorities work closely with UN and aid agencies. Nevertheless, Unicef speaks of "operational challenges" in purchasing and delivering supplies.

Christian aid agencies constantly express frustration about bureaucratic delays and obstacles to providing supplies to those who need it most. And yes, the obstacles can come from both sides.

Nevertheless, New Zealand can provide international leadership by addressing the question of how sanctions can be applied without disrupting the provision of humanitarian supplies.

The Government could, for example, announce its contribution to the UN fund mentioned above. Our ambassador could visit possible aid projects, possibly after discussion and agreement with President Moon.

More widely, New Zealanders might well ask not only whether the sanctions are ineffective, but whether they are in fact destructive and demeaning for the poor. But for now, it would be enough simply to show compassion and contribute to the emergency fund.

The Rev Dr Stuart Vogel lives in Auckland and works with the Auckland Chinese Presbyterian Church. In October, he visited the DPRK to see a church-run bakery that produces bread for kindergartens and old-age homes.