BEIJING, June 22 (Reuters) - Drought has returned to threaten precarious food supplies in North Korea, the head of a German aid agency said on Friday after a rare visit to the countryside in the isolated state.
Wolfgang Jamann, the head of the German NGO Welthungerhilfe, said he saw children using bottles and buckets to water crops by hand in the absence of large-scale irrigation systems in two southern provinces.
"We were repeatedly confronted with the statement that we are in a drought, the most severe drought in 60 years," he told the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China, after getting back from an almost week-long visit to North Korea.
"It's planting season now for the main crops - rice and cabbage and maize - and you can see in the entire country the planting has happened. But of course it is dry, and you don't know what's going to happen, whether these plants will survive the dry spell you have at the moment."
North Korea's KCNA news agency said on Friday there had been hailstorms and heavy rain in some parts of the country in recent days but that most areas were suffering "a long spell" of drought.
Dry winters are not unusual. Two-thirds of annual rainfall on the Korean peninsula comes in the summer.
Every spare piece of land was being used to grow crops or vegetables, said Jamann, whose group is one of the few western agencies permitted to work in North Korea.
He was unable to provide any estimates for how many people may be affected and stressed these were his own observations from the limited access he got.
"This maize is being watered manually, because there's no rain and there's of course no large irrigation schemes. There's many, many people out there trying to save those plants," he added. "There's a huge effort being made now to provide water."
North Korea suffered famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated million people and has continued to endure chronic food shortages, which many experts say reflect systemtic failings in the country's heavily centralised economic system, which has sapped farmers' productivity.
While the United Nations estimates that North Korea's food shortfall this year should be less serious than last year, even in a good year the mountainous and sanctions-bound country struggles to feed itself.
The United States said in April it would not go forward with planned food aid to North Korea after its unsuccessful launch of a long-range missile which Washington had warned would have consequences.
North Korea, ostracised by the West for developing nuclear weapons in breach of UN Security Council resolutions, walked out of six-party disarmament talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia in 2008. It expelled UN nuclear inspectors in 2009. (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)