By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - A heat wave in North Korea has led to rice, maize and other crops withering in the fields, "with potentially catastrophic effects", the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said on Friday.
The world's largest disaster relief network warned of a risk of a "full-blown food security crisis" in the isolated country, where a famine in the mid-1990s killed up to three million people. It said the worrying situation had been exacerbated by international sanctions imposed due to North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes.
In a statement issued in Geneva, the IFRC said there had been no rainfall since early July as temperatures soared to an average 39 Celsius (102 Fahrenheit) across the country, whose official name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The next rain was expected in mid-August.
The population of 25 million is already stressed and vulnerable with malnutrition among children that could worsen, stunting their growth, it said.
"This is not yet classified as a drought, but rice, maize and other crops are already withering in the fields, with potentially catastrophic effects for the people of DPRK," said Joseph Muyamboit, the IFRC's programme manager in Pyongyang.
"We cannot and must not let this situation become a full-blown food security crisis. We know that previous serious dry spells have disrupted the food supply to a point where it has caused serious health problems and malnutrition across the country."
North Korea called last week for an "all-out battle" against the record temperatures threatening crops, referring to an "unprecedented natural disaster".
Drought and floods have long been a seasonal threat in North Korea, which lacks irrigation systems and other infrastructure to ward off natural disasters.
In Seoul, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it had no specific information on the situation in the north, but that the Red Cross had notified them of the heat wave last week.
The IFRC was helping the national Red Cross to support 13,700 of the most vulnerable people at risk, in South Hamgyong and South Pyongan provinces. It had deployed emergency response teams and 20 water pumps to irrigate fields in the hardest-hit areas, it said.
David Beasley, the head of the U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP), visited North Korea in May to look into boosting food distributions to hungry women and children, in the latest sign of an opening.
About 70 percent of North Koreans are "food insecure", meaning they struggle to avoid hunger, and one in four children under five is stunted from chronic malnutrition, the WFP said at the time. A 2015 drought worsened the situation, it said.
(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul; Editing by Catherine Evans)