AFTER HE LEFT Hanoi last week without a deal, Donald Trump, America’s president, was quick to claim that his meeting with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator, had not been entirely in vain. Mr Kim, he reassured the world, had promised to stick to the moratorium on tests of missiles and nuclear bombs that has held since November 2017. And North Korea’s economic potential, Mr Trump noted, was still “tremendous”.
Reports this week bolster doubts about both claims. According to South Korea’s spy agency, Mr Kim may well be changing his mind on testing. Satellite images of Dongchang-ri, a site which has been used both to launch satellites and test engines for long-range missiles, but which Mr Kim had begun to dismantle last year, suggest the North is restoring the facility. The refurbishment is likely to have begun before the summit in Hanoi. Analysts are taking the move as a signal that North Korea’s “patience” with America is beginning to run out, just as Mr Kim had threatened it might in a speech to mark the new year.
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Mr Kim has promised his people economic development as well as nuclear glory. But the economy seems as backward as ever. Around 11m North Koreans, more than two-fifths of the population, are malnourished. Roughly as many have no access to clean drinking water. (In rural areas the percentage is much higher.) On March 6th the UN reported that total crop production fell to less than 5m tonnes last year, a 9% drop from 2017 and the lowest level in a decade. The situation is likely to worsen this year, as a summer of extreme heat and an autumn of floods and typhoons was followed by a lack of rain during the winter planting season. Even now, reckons the UN, nearly 4m people are in need of emergency aid.
Technically, delivery of humanitarian assistance should not be affected by the lack of progress in nuclear talks, as it is exempt from the sanctions intended to curtail Mr Kim’s nuclear ambitions. The two leaders are unlikely to have discussed malnutrition over their steak dinner in Hanoi. But aid workers inside and outside the country say that Mr Kim’s recalcitrance, and the tightening of sanctions it has prompted, have affected the flow of humanitarian goods. Applications to the UN to bring food or medicine into the country take months to process and aid is often held up at the border. American aid workers have been unable to travel to North Korea owing to the travel ban imposed by their government. Many agencies have been forced to curtail their activities or have given up altogether. While Mr Kim flirts and bargains with Mr Trump, ordinary North Koreans continue to suffer.