Experts said several factors are now bringing North Korea close to a potential repeat of a famine that hit the country in the 1990s. International sanctions, a nationwide drought followed by typhoons and Covid-19 have contributed to malnutrition for millions of residents.

Hazel Smith, an expert in North Korea from SOAS University of London, said many people - including children, pregnant women and the elderly - were now starving. Smith, who quoted agricultural data from UNICEF and the World Food Program, said there simply wasn't enough food.

The Korea Development Institute in Seoul said North Korea was estimated to have produced roughly 4 million tons of food last year. The institute said the country needed to produce at least 5.2 million tons.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said that North Korea had a food gap of about 780,000 tons - even with imports. The agency said a drought in early 2020 and several typhoons that followed affected food production.

"If this gap is not adequately covered through commercial imports and/or food aid, households could experience a harsh lean period between August and October 2021," the agency said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June acknowledged the problem during a meeting with the Workers' Party's Central Committee. He said the situation was "getting intense." Kim asked people to brace for another "Arduous March" - referring to the famine between 1994 to 1998. It was estimated to have killed between 240,000 and 3.5 million people.

UNICEF said in its Humanitarian Situation Report around 10 million people in North Korea were "food insecure" and more than 140,000 children five and younger were suffering from acute malnutrition.

"There are so many more beggars; some people died from hunger in the border area," Human Rights Watch said.