A severe lack of rainfall in the first half of this year has badly damaged vital harvests in a country where malnutrition is already widespread, according to the report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Seasonal rainfall has dropped below 2001 levels and could cause “a sharp deterioration in food security conditions of a large part of the population,” said Vincent Martin, FAO Representative in China and North Korea.

“Immediate interventions are needed to support affected farmers and prevent undesirable coping strategies for the most vulnerable, such as reducing daily food intakes,” Martin added.

The North has periodically been hit by famine in recent decades, with hundreds of thousands of people dying in the mid-to-late 1990s during a period known in the country as the Arduous March.

Even in good years, more than 40 percent of the population is categorised by the UN as undernourished.

But rainfall in the first half of this year has been far below the levels of 2001, when a particularly bad drought caused the country’s cereal crop production to hit unprecedented lows.

In some key agricultural provinces, rainfall from April to June was 50 per cent below average.

Mismanagement is widely blamed for food shortages in an impoverished country, while critics point to the nation’s vast expenditure on its nuclear and missile programmes, at the cost of investment in agriculture.