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Story highlights

U.N. warns of "looming humanitarian disaster" in North Korea due to drought with famine likely to follow

Even state media, which usually paint a rosy picture, have expressed concerns

U.N. official calls on international community to provide help

(CNN) —  

Even a simple piece of fruit was unfamiliar to Lee So-yeon when she fled North Korea seven years ago. She had never seen an orange. So when she came across one at a South Korean market, she bit into it like an apple – peel and all.

During the famine of the 1990s, Lee was forced to eat grass from the mountains to survive.

“We were told that any grass that rabbits eat is edible,” she says. “So we picked any grass we could find that wasn’t poisonous and mixed it with rice, or used it to make grass porridge.

“Children were suffering from malnutrition. Their stomachs were very swollen. … Their whole faces were covered with fine hair and their hair was a very light brown color instead of black. Their arms and legs were so skinny they looked like tree branches.”

Now, North Koreans are again facing a “looming humanitarian disaster in the DPRK,” or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, according to the United Nations human rights chief.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told CNN, “We call for the international community to support the DPRK and help the DPRK in a respect of what is going to be a very difficult famine.”

State media, which usually paint only a rosy picture of life for North Korea’s citizens, have been publishing reports about what they call the worst drought in 100 years.

“Their decision to officially report the drought in their internal media is remarkable,” says Andrei Lankov, a professor at South Korea’s Kookmin University. “It’s a signal to both domestic and foreign audience that probably something will go bad later this year. So they will probably apply for foreign aid.”

READ: Where young defectors go to school

Parched rice paddies ‘incredibly serious’

China says it is willing to help.

And there’s been a neighborly offer of assistance from South Korea, even though the two countries are technically at war. Seoul’s Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo says both Koreas are facing drought, and this could be a time for cooperation.

The Asia deputy regional director for the U.N. World Food Programme, John Aylieff, witnessed power cuts to the hydroelectric power supply when he was last in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. He says his staff members have reported low reservoir and river levels.

“The government has said … that the rice which is being transplanted in the fields as we speak, about 40% of that is now in paddy fields which are parched. That sounds incredibly serious.”

The U.N.’s Al Hussein warns, “You may well see starvation on a massive scale unless there’s a massive relief effort in the weeks and months to come.”

Aylieff is not predicting a famine like the one that killed upward of half a million people in the 1990s.

But he says if it does not rain soon, the main rice harvest will suffer. That could cause food shortages by the end of the year – a major concern in a country where a third of the children are already malnourished.

READ: Kim Jong Un meets female fighter pilots

Malnutrition fears

“It doesn’t take very much for malnutrition to spike,” he says. “It doesn’t take long for malnutrition to spike either. So a short and fairly serious shock to the food system of the country can create quite serious implications for the population.”

Lankov points out that North Korea also had a drought last year, but still had a good harvest. He is more worried about the implications for fledgling reforms to the agricultural system.

“Over the last two years,” he explains, “the North Korean government has been implementing a new and remarkably efficient policy which is based on the household responsibilities. So farmers’ households are given 30% of the harvest instead of the fixed rations they used to receive in the past. And as a result, they work much better, and over the last two years North Korea had really good harvests. Essentially they produced enough food to feed themselves.”

Lankov worries if the drought is as bad as some are predicting, the government will once again force farmers to hand over all of their food, in the name of the greater good.