BEIJING (Reuters) - Impoverished North Korea faces a chronic food shortage following a harsh winter which has affected its harvest, a United Nations official said on Friday.
Years of mismanaged farm policy and natural disasters in the 1990s resulted in famine that some estimates said killed as many as a million people.
"We know that they have had a very tough winter," Gerald Bourke, who works for the operations department at U.N.'s World Food Program in Rome, told reporters at Beijing airport after arriving back from Pyongyang.
"They've had problems with the potato crop, they've had problems with the germination of their winter wheat," he said.
"As we know, the DPRK is not a country that has produced more food than it requires. There's a chronic deficit there and that has all kinds of implications from a nutrition point of view."
DPRK is North Korea's official name.
North Korea, involved in a face-off with the West over its nuclear weapons program, faces "looming food shortages and alarming malnutrition," five U.S. aid agencies said in February, urging emergency food aid for the country.
Bourke said his team was given excellent access in the normally secretive state, visiting 20 counties they had never been to before.
"We've been to markets, state shops. We've interviewed households on a random basis, we have visited schools, kindergartens, nurseries, hospitals. We have gathered a lot of information," Bourke said.
"Now we're at the stage, the field work finished, that we're going to begin the analysis of that information," Bourke said.
"That will basically give us a sense of the problem the DPRK is facing in terms of food security and it will allow us to consider the sort of options we may have by way of a response."
Analysis of North Korea's food production data by international agencies is still incomplete but there is a consensus that there was a modest improvement in the harvest in 2010, according to some South Korean officials and U.N. agencies.
But North Korea still falls acutely short of what is needed to feed its 23 million people even in a good year.
South Korea sent the first shipment of rice aid to the North in more than two years last year amid warming relations before the North bombarded one of its islands near their disputed sea border in November killing four people.
Western governments have also been reluctant to donate food until North Korea shows more willingness to allow monitoring of distribution and comply with international relief norms.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Sugita Katyal)