north korea drought pkg novak_00004809.jpg
north korea drought pkg novak_00004809.jpg
Now playing
02:35
South Korea willing to help North Korea during drought
Iran's new President-elect Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a press conference in Tehran, Iran, Monday, June 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Vahid Salemi/AP
Iran's new President-elect Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a press conference in Tehran, Iran, Monday, June 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Now playing
02:28
CNN asked Iran's President-Elect about nuclear deal. Hear his reply
Now playing
02:15
See where Olympians will eat, sleep and relax in Tokyo
TABRIZ, IRAN - JUNE 16: Iran presidential candidate Ebrahim Raeesi takes part in a campaign meeting with Residents of Tabriz on June 16, 2021 in Tabriz, Iran. The country's incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani, is ineligible to run again after serving two terms in office. (Photo by Meghdad Madadi ATPImages/Getty Images)
ATPImages/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
TABRIZ, IRAN - JUNE 16: Iran presidential candidate Ebrahim Raeesi takes part in a campaign meeting with Residents of Tabriz on June 16, 2021 in Tabriz, Iran. The country's incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani, is ineligible to run again after serving two terms in office. (Photo by Meghdad Madadi ATPImages/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:20
Ultra-conservative candidate wins Iran's presidential election
nigeria kidnapping explainer africa Asher pkg oneworld intl ldn vpx_00021802.png
nigeria kidnapping explainer africa Asher pkg oneworld intl ldn vpx_00021802.png
Now playing
02:20
'The stuff of nightmares': Breaking down Nigeria's kidnapping epidemic
screengrab china shenzhou 12 launch
CCTV
screengrab china shenzhou 12 launch
Now playing
01:59
See Chinese rocket launch to send astronauts to its space station
Putin praises biden Geneva summit Robertson lkl intl hnk vpx_00010025.png
Putin praises biden Geneva summit Robertson lkl intl hnk vpx_00010025.png
Now playing
02:09
Hear Putin offer rare praise for President Biden
Iran presidential election Pleitgen pkg intl hnk vpx_00021422.png
Iran presidential election Pleitgen pkg intl hnk vpx_00021422.png
Now playing
02:22
Hear from Iranian voters as they head to polls in presidential election
Host TV
Now playing
07:15
'What are you so afraid of?': Journalist presses Putin on political opposition
Russian President Vladimir Putin faces questions from reporters after his meeting with US President Joe Biden in Geneva, Switzerland.
Host TV
Russian President Vladimir Putin faces questions from reporters after his meeting with US President Joe Biden in Geneva, Switzerland.
Now playing
04:44
Putin faces question about cyberattacks against the US
CNN's Christiane Amanpour provides analysis following a summit between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
CNN
CNN's Christiane Amanpour provides analysis following a summit between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Now playing
01:59
Amanpour: Biden did something very different than Trump
President Joe Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at the 'Villa la Grange', in Geneva, Switzerland.
Patrick Semansky/AP
President Joe Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at the 'Villa la Grange', in Geneva, Switzerland.
Now playing
02:55
Ward describes 'uncomfortable' photo op between Biden and Putin
biden putin summit us russia press pools clash collins sot vpx_00012417.png
biden putin summit us russia press pools clash collins sot vpx_00012417.png
Now playing
01:40
Collins: 'Combative exchanges' between Russian and US press corps
Pool
Now playing
02:49
See Biden and Putin shake hands as summit begins in Geneva
GAZA CITY, GAZA - JUNE 15: Flames are seen after an Israeli air strike hit Hamas targets in Gaza City, Gaza on June 15, 2021. (Photo by Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
GAZA CITY, GAZA - JUNE 15: Flames are seen after an Israeli air strike hit Hamas targets in Gaza City, Gaza on June 15, 2021. (Photo by Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Now playing
03:58
Israel launches airstrikes in Gaza over incendiary balloons
China successfully launched the first module of its planned space station from the Wenchang launch site in the southern island of Hainan, according to the China National Space Administration.
CCTV
China successfully launched the first module of its planned space station from the Wenchang launch site in the southern island of Hainan, according to the China National Space Administration.
Now playing
01:04
See China's last rocket launch to send in space key component of its space station

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

Seoul, South Korea 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.