SEOUL, Oct 18 (Reuters) Destitute North Korea will likely be pushed into famine due to devastating floods this year that wiped out crops and ruined farm land, a South Korean state-run think-tank said today.
''The North's food inventory has almost hit the bottom, so unless there's an extraordinary measure to stabilise supply, there may be a situation next year similar to the late 1990s,'' a study by the Korea Rural Economic Institute (KREI) said.
Famine in the late 1990s brought about by flooding, drought and years of mismanagement in the farm sector killed as many as 10 percent of the North's 22 million people, according to some estimates.
The KREI study said North Korea will run about 1.4 million tonnes short of the food needed to feed its people and estimated damage to its farming sector at more than 275 million dollars.
North Korea has said flooding in August was some of the worst to hit the country. It killed at least 600 people, left more than 300,000 homeless, destroyed thousands of buildings and wiped out more than 11 percent of its farm land, its official media said.
But another South Korean specialist in North Korean agriculture has said it was unlikely that the isolated state would soon slip back into famine because of a large increase in grain production over the past decade.
North Korea, which suffers from chronic food shortages, usually relies on handouts from neighbours South Korea and China to make up its food deficit and it receives food aid from international agencies such as the UN World Food Programme.
Chronic malnutrition among North Korean children remains a problem, but mass hunger has not set in, according to Michel Le Pechoux, UNICEF deputy representative in North Korea.
''Food and malnutrition is an issue, but to say that people are starving, we do not have evidence of that,'' Le Pechoux told a news briefing in Geneva.
''I wouldn't qualify it as famine. I think the situation in the late 1990s and the situation now is very different,'' he said, adding it was ''still fragile''.
The last UN nutritional assessment, conducted in 2004, found that 37 per cent of North Korean children were chronically malnourished, similar to rates in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, he said. That was far better than its 60 per cent rate in the 1990s.
Malnutrition is linked not only to food supply but also dirty water that causes diarrhoea, Le Pechoux said.
UNICEF is currently undertaking nutritional assessment among people left homeless by the floods in 19 North Korean counties.
Aid workers have said the environment for supplying food aid to the country has improved due to Pyongyang's progress in implementing an international agreement to end its nuclear weapons programmes.
''In the past few months there has been a lot of progress on a number of issues,'' Le Pechoux said. ''We are all quite happy with the current political climate and interaction with the government.'' REUTERS SKB RAI2013