SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
It's believed that up to a million North Koreans died in the 1990s, victims of one of the worst famines of the 20th century. Now the North Korean government warns of another devastating drought. But as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, predictions are it's unlikely to be as severe as the last one.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: When North Korea issues a statement saying it's facing the worst drought in 100 years, it's taken seriously even though it said the same thing last year and in 2001.
RANDALL IRESON: The phrase worst drought in 100 years is probably an exaggeration - serious drought, not an exaggeration.
NORTHAM: Randall Ireson is a specialist on North Korean agriculture. He says there was a tropical storm recently that provided much needed rain, but otherwise it's been dry.
IRESON: When you get a year like this year, when there are long periods with no rain at all and what there is is far below normal, then that's a serious concern.
NORTHAM: Gauging the extent of the drought - like gauging anything in North Korea - is difficult because the country is sealed off from the rest of the world. Joseph Bermudez is with AllSource Analysis, a commercial intelligence company. He recently compared satellite imagery of North Korea from the past two years. Bermudez looked closely at the reservoirs.
JOSEPH BERMUDEZ: If you look down in the southern part of North Korea, you'll see that the reservoirs are anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of the levels they were in 2013. That is a significant difference.
NORTHAM: The U.N. says that drought has already caused food shortages, and the government has reduced food rations. David Kaatrud, the regional director for the World Food Program, says more shortages are expected later this year.
DAVID KAATRUD: And at this point in time, some of the preliminary indications is we could have significant reductions in the main rice harvest of up to 30 percent in some areas.
NORTHAM: Kaatrud says any food shortage in North Korea comes at a time when the World Food Program is already struggling to raise funds and resources to get aid into the country.
KAATRUD: We aim to serve about 1.8 million children and pregnant and lactating women. However, we've only been able to reach about a half of that this year because of the tightness of resourcing.
NORTHAM: While this drought may be affecting many North Koreans, it's unlikely to be on a comparable level to what happened in the 1990s. Experts like Randall Ireson believe the hard-line government there has made some changes. He said farmers used to work for token wages and fixed rations. Now they're allowed to keep more than 30 percent of what they grow.
IRESON: We believe - remains somewhat to be seen - that they have permission to sell any of that excess on the open market if they're not going to consume it themselves.
NORTHAM: But that's if they have the crops to sell. And at the moment, it all depends on the rain. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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