By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - Chronically hungry North Korea could lose as much as 13 percent of its grain harvest this year as a result of drought followed by widespread flooding, a South Korean official said on Tuesday.
The grim forecast follows a warning last week by an aide worker just back from a visit to the destitute North that it could be facing a return to famine which cost the lives of an estimated 1 million North Koreans in the 1990s.
"North Korea's food situation next year could be difficult," the South Korean official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
He estimated the crop loss at 600,000 tonnes in a country which even when in years of good harvest has to turn to the outside world for help to feed its population of 24 million.
The expected grain shortage coincides with the isolated North Korean government's promises to reform its broken economy and attempts to increase its contacts with the outside world, especially ally China which helps prop up its neighbor.
The United Nations estimates that the North needs around 5.3 million tonnes of grain a year and can normally produce 4.5 million tonnes. The predicted shortfall this year is equivalent to a 13 percent drop.
The head of Danish aid group Mission East told Reuters last week after a visit to affected areas the North could be heading back into famine.
Kim Hartzner said that after the heavy flooding, including from a typhoon in August, the North had little capacity to deal with any more damage.
Seoul's bleak prediction comes after years of playing down North Korea's the condition of North Korea's food security by the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak, which had at one point said Pyongyang may be exaggerating its aid needs.
The World Food Programme said it will conduct a full scale assessment of the North's food needs this month.
The typhoon sweeping across North Korea late August killed 48 and ravaged tens of thousands hectares of crops in the already flood-hit country suffering chronic food shortages, after heavy rains had swept through the impoverished state in late June and July.
State-run KCNA reported on Monday the powerful typhoon destroyed some 45,000 hectares of crops. That is equivalent to about 1.7 percent of North's arable land, according to World Bank data as of 2009.
A recent U.N. report classified 7.2 million of the 24 million population as "chronic poor" and said one in three children were stunted due to poor nutrition.
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)