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North Korea faces lowest crop harvest in five years, widespread food shortages - U.N.

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea’s crop production this year is expected to drop to its lowest level in five years, bringing serious shortages for 40% of the population, as a dry spell and poor irrigation hit an economy already reeling from sanctions over its weapons programmes, the United Nations said on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: North Korean people work on a rice field at the propaganda village of Gijungdong in North Korea, in this picture taken near the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

In its latest quarterly Crop Prospects and Food Situation report, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said the poor harvest of the country’s main crops, rice and maize, means 10.1 million people are in urgent need of assistance.

"Below-average rains and low irrigation availability between mid-April and mid-July, a critical period for crop development, mainly affected the main season rice and maize crops," the FAO said. The report, which covers cereal supply and demand around the world and identifies countries that need external food aid, didn't disclose detailed estimates of production by volume. (here)

North Korea has long struggled with food shortages and a dysfunctional state rationing system, and state media has in recent months warned of drought and other “persisting abnormal phenomena”.

The crops shortfall comes as the country bids to contain the spread of African swine fever in its pig herd, following confirmation of a first case in May.

The disease, fatal to pigs though not harmful to humans, has spread into Asia - including South Korea - since first being detected in China last year, resulting in large-scale culls and reduced production of pork, a staple meat across the region including in North Korea.

The FAO report followed earlier U.N. assessments this year that the isolated country’s food production last year fell to its lowest level in more than a decade amid a prolonged heatwave, typhoon and floods.

South Korea has pledged to provide 50,000 tonnes of rice aid to its northern neighbour through the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP). But its delivery has been delayed by Pyongyang’s lukewarm response amid stalled inter-Korean dialogue and denuclearisation talks with the United States, Seoul officials said.

In July, the North’s official KCNA news agency said a campaign to mitigate the effects of drought was under way by digging canals and wells, installing pumps, and using people and vehicles to transport water.

But North Korea has told the United Nations to cut the number of its staff it deploys in the country for aid programmes. citing the “politicization of U.N. assistance by hostile forces.”

Sporadic famines are common in North Korea, but observers said a severe nationwide famine in the 1990s killed as many as a million people.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell