BEIJING -- A new drought in North Korea has set back efforts to end five years of famine, turning rice paddies into dry, cracked earth at the height of the growing season and slashing projected corn harvests, an aid worker said Saturday.
Many hoped this season's harvest would start a comeback from devastating shortages caused by bad weather compounded by decades of economic mismanagement in the secretive communist country.
But Kathi Zellweger of the charity Caritas Hong Kong -- one of the few foreigners allowed to visit North Korea regularly -- painted a grim picture after a 10-day tour.
Some North Korean corn farmers expect to get only one-third of their projected harvests because of the chronic dry spell, she said.
"We tried so hard to move slowly into rehabilitation and development," Zellweger said during a stopover in Beijing. "If the harvest is bad, we'll be back to square one. That's food aid."
North Korea's 22 million people have depended on donated food since 1995, when the nation's farm industry collapsed. Famine is believed to have killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Zellweger said the famine seemed to be under control in the places she visited. But she said lingering effects of starvation were still apparent, especially in children.
"They are much too small for their age," Zellweger said. "Often when you think this is a 10-year-old kid, they are really 15 or 16."
Zellweger's visit, which ended Friday, included the southeastern provinces of Kangwon and North Pyongan, and Hamgyong in the northeast. As with most foreign tours, her itinerary was restricted by the government.
She said agricultural experts in her group saw dry river beds, wilting corn plants and rice paddies that contained only cracked soil.
North Korean state media say the nation is suffering from an unprecedented drought. Reports say hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland have been damaged and that the country needs more help.
Last month, the United States announced a 50,000-ton food donation for North Korea, while South Korea is donating 100,000 tons of fertilizer.
North Korea's economic woes are believed to be a key reason for its recent decision to improve relations with South Korea.
Leaders from the two sides, meeting for the first time, agreed last month in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang to cooperate on promoting reconciliation, economic exchanges and eventual reunification.
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