By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – Rates of malnutrition and disease are increasing in North Korea as it faces a harvest that is half of what was expected, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said on Thursday.

International aid agencies as well as North Korea state media have been warning that erratic weather with drought and floods, and a lack of access to resources could lead to a food crisis in a country under strict international sanctions over leader Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

“We are already seeing the impacts of this drought on vulnerable people,” Mohamed Babiker, head of the IFRC’s office in North Korea, said in a statement.

“Rates of malnutrition and water borne diseases like diarrhea and colitis are on the rise.”

After an assessment in May concluded that this year’s harvest would be less than half what it should be, the IFRC spent 250,000 Swiss francs ($253,787) on deploying mobile water pumps, which were able to double crop yields in the targeted areas, the organization said.

“Water pumps and irrigation supplies can make a significant difference,” Babiker said, calling for an additional 472,000 Swiss francs ($479,284) for more agricultural and sanitation supplies.

North Korea increased imports of fertilizer and food products last year, according to trade data compiled by the United Nations.

But the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), a Washington-based think tank, documented in a report this week how North Korea also continues to import millions of dollars worth of luxury goods, including at least two armored limousines valued at $500,000 each.

South Korea’s intelligence agency told lawmakers on Tuesday that drought had hit the North Korean economy which already faces difficulties such as widening trade deficits, foreign currency shortages and a deepening cash crunch due to sanctions.

Rainfall in North Korea has fallen by more than 30% this year from a year before, and there are signs of a deteriorating food situation, according to Lee Eun-jae, one of the lawmakers briefed by the spy agency.

“North Korea is expected to exhaust its crop reserves earlier than usual this year,” Lee told reporters.

South Korea has said it would donate $4.5 million to the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), and announced it was also providing 50,000 tonnes of rice for delivery to its northern neighbor.

South Korea also recently donated $3.5 million to the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for humanitarian projects in North Korea.

Last week, North Korea state news agency KCNA said a campaign to mitigate the effects of drought was under way by digging canals and wells, installing pumps, and using people and vehicles to transport water.

The official television broadcaster on Monday warned of further damage in the upcoming rainy season. It said the country suffered from floods in June, showing submerged buildings and villages where houses were destroyed by landslides.

Sporadic famines are common in North Korea, according to experts based in South Korea, but in the 1990s, a nationwide famine killed as many as one million people.

(Reporting by Josh Smith, additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Robert Birsel)