Early estimates predict this year's harvest will be as much as 30% below average, due to a lack of fertilizers, which means the food shortage in 2009 could well be worse.
There are no signs that Kim Jong Il's regime is making any efforts to resolve North Korea's food problem at home. In fact, government policy has been responsible for the crisis.
Part of the way North Koreans coped with the crippling famine in the 1990s was that food distribution, usually dominated by the state, became somewhat privatized. The regime allowed farmers' markets to pop up around the country, and their emergence gave people an alternative source of food.
But in 2005, the government tried to reassert its control, broke up the markets and confiscated grain from the farmers, which led to a fall in output. Then in 2007, severe flooding delivered another blow to the agriculture sector; by this year, the country's shortfall of grain was the worst since 2001.
The regime's leadership "would rather have a proportion of their population starve to death" than pursue reform, says Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Pyongyang believes market reform "would risk ideological and cultural infiltration, which is how they see the Soviet system going down."