North Korea may be heading for food crisis, Red Cross warns as crops fail in hot weather

A heat wave in North Korea has led to rice, maize and other crops withering in the fields, "with potentially catastrophic effects," the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

About 70% of the population is 'food insecure,' meaning people are struggling to avoid hunger

A farmer stands in front of a field in South Hwanghae, North Korea, on June 24, 2015. The ICRC says hot weather is causing crops to wither, which could have 'catastrophic' consequences. (Wong Maye-E/Associated Press)

A heat wave in North Korea has led to rice, maize and other crops withering in the fields, "with potentially catastrophic effects," the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said on Friday.

The world's largest disaster relief network warned of a risk of a "full-blown food security crisis" in the isolated country, saying the worrying situation had been exacerbated by international sanctions imposed due to North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

There had been no rainfall since early July as temperatures soared to an average 39 C across the country (official name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the next rain was expected in mid-August, it said.

We cannot and must not let this situation become a full-blown food security crisis.- Joseph Muyamboit, ICRC

The population of 25 million is already stressed and vulnerable with malnutrition among children that could worsen, a statement issued in Geneva said.

"This is not yet classified as a drought, but rice, maize and other crops are already withering in the fields, with potentially catastrophic effects for the people of DPRK," said Joseph Muyamboit, its program manager in Pyongyang.

"We cannot and must not let this situation become a full-blown food security crisis," he said. "We know that previous serious dry spells have disrupted the food supply to a point where it has caused serious health problems and malnutrition across the country."

The federation was helping the national Red Cross support 13,700 of the most vulnerable people at risk. It had deployed emergency response teams and 20 water pumps to irrigate fields in the hardest-hit areas, it said.

David Beasley, head of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), visited North Korea in May to look into boosting food distributions to hungry women and children, in the latest sign of an opening.

About 70 per cent of North Koreans are "food insecure," meaning they struggle to avoid hunger, and one in four children under five is stunted from chronic malnutrition, the WFP said at the time. A 2015 drought worsened the situation, it said.

North Korea suffered famine in the mid-1990s that killed up to three million people.