A crane loads off the Russian food aid to North Korea from a Russian ship at Nampho port Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014 in Nampho city, North Korea. (Jon Chol Jin/AP)

— As North Korea heads toward the “barley hump” — the lean season before the rice and corn harvest in the summer — aid agencies are warning that an unusually dry winter is compounding chronic food shortages in the impoverished country.

And while North Korea may no longer be in a state of famine, malnutrition remains such a widespread problem that even slight changes in weather can have an outsized impact on ordinary people’s food supply.

“We’re concerned about seed scarcity and the low level rain and snowfall,” John Aylieff, deputy Asia director at the U.N.’s World Food Program, said from Pyongyang. “All of these things are raising concerns about the winter harvest this year.”

Winter crops — including wheat and barley — should be growing now, but after an exceptionally dry year in 2014, rainfall around the country has been markedly lower than usual so far this year, particularly in the “cereal bowl” provinces of Pyongan in the west and Hwanghae in the south.

Although the winter harvest makes up only 5 percent of North Korea’s domestic food supply, it is a critical time because the crops see the country through the lean season known locally as the barley hump — the period between May and August before rice and corn crops are harvested.

Farmers spray fertilizer on cabbage crops which will be harvested early next month and used mainly to make Kimchi at the Chilgol vegetable farm on the outskirts of Pyongyang. (Wong Maye-E/AP)

“If there is a big gap, this could prolong the lean season and it could prove a ‘flash point’ for malnutrition,” Aylieff said.

North Korea has a chronic food security problem. Before the Korean peninsula was divided after World War II, the southern half had always operated as the bread basket and the north as the industrial heartland.

That has meant that, since the division, the North has struggled to feed itself even at the best of times. It muddled through for four or so decades, with the Soviet Union as its communist benefactor.

But the end of the Cold War and decades of economic mismanagement combined with droughts and floods in the 1990s caused a devastating famine, called the “arduous march” in Korean. Estimates on the number of dead range from 400,000 to 3 million, but there is no dispute that there was widespread suffering.

While the food situation has stabilized over the past decade to a point where starvation is rare, malnutrition and hunger remain rife, and donations to international aid agencies have dropped off thanks to fatigue with the North Korean regime and competing crises elsewhere.

In a startling admission last week, Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, said during a visit to a livestock breeding center that it was “imperative to solve the food problem.”

“The most important task facing us today is to rapidly improve the standard of people's living,” Kim said, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

In a new report published this week, the Food and Agriculture Organization, which operates in North Korea, said that after increasing markedly for three consecutive years, food production totals there were stagnant last year. It forecast that the crop of early season potatoes and the winter wheat and barley crops, to be harvested starting in June, will fall considerably.

“Most households [are] estimated to have borderline and poor food consumption rates,” the FAO forecast for the year ahead.

While the communist regime still ostensibly runs a “public distribution system,” giving food rations to households, defectors from around the country say it has all but broken down. In the few places where it does operate, North Koreans are set to receive even less than usual.

Official North Korean figures show that there is a shortfall of nearly 900,000 metric tons of cereals for the public distribution system this year, according to people who have seen the figures, meaning that it has only three-quarters of what is needed.

But the problem for ordinary North Koreans is not just how much they’re eating, but what they’re eating.

“Even if they’re now getting enough calories, people are deficient in nutrients,” said Randall Spadoni of World Vision, an aid agency. “The bigger problem is getting protein and micronutrients, rather than just grains, to people. So we’re working with more nutritious foods like potatoes, soy beans and vegetables.”

The U.N.’s World Food Program estimates that the average North Korean’s diet is 25 percent deficient in protein and 30 percent deficient in fats, and that the average North Korean eats only half the number of calories each day as the average South Korean.

The concern about the spring harvest comes amid broader changes in the way North Korea operates its agricultural sector, where oxen are still widely used, in an apparent recognition that the system has not been working.

Changes introduced on a trial basis in 2012, and expanded around the country last year, have moved away from centrally planned production to give power over planting to farming households. They now have to give only 40 percent of what they produce to the state and can keep the rest.

The changes are significant because the regime has been pouring money into making life better in the capital, Pyongyang, where the elite and most politically loyal live. Meanwhile, other parts of the country have become even more neglected.

Allowing more freedom in the rural areas could increase people’s standard of living there — and potentially make the regime more stable.

Randall Ireson, a former agricultural adviser who worked for a nonprofit agency in North Korea for almost a decade, said the reforms did appear to be making a difference.

“We should be able to see more diverse crops at a local farm level,” he said, adding that North Korea was beginning to move away from its emphasis on rice and maize, and growing more soybeans.

But the changes do not yet constitute Chinese- or Vietnamese-style economic reform because North Koreans have no certainty about the officially state-owned land.

“If farmers believe that they can have these fields and farm them for at least the medium term future, they will be more likely to invest in improving the soil, but they need some assurance that the efforts they put in won’t go to waste,” Ireson said, noting that it could easily take three years to return the depleted soil to good health.

“Are they going to spend three years composting animal manure in their spare time and carting it around by hand, when they have no assurance that they will still be farming this field five years from now?”