Aug. 13 (UPI) -- Some 60% of North Koreans are suffering food insecurity, according to a new report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic slightly exacerbating the already dire situation.
The report, "International Food Security Assessment, 2020-30," found that 15.3 million North Koreans, or 59.8% of the population, are food-insecure in 2020.
"An estimated 59.2% of North Korea's population is food-insecure in 2020, rising slightly to 59.8% when the effects of the COVID-19 macro shock are taken into account," the report said.
The total for 2020 represents an increase of 700,000 people from last year's assessment, which found 57.3% of North Korea's population, or 14.6 million people, to be food-insecure in 2019.
North Korea ranks alongside Afghanistan and Yemen as the most food-insecure countries in Asia, according to the report, which was released this week.
The USDA assessment defines a daily intake of 2,100 calories as necessary to maintain an active and healthy lifestyle and said that North Korea is running a per capita deficit of 430 calories.
In June, a United Nations human rights expert on North Korea expressed concern over "a further deepening of food shortages and widespread food insecurity" worsened by border closures with China that began in January due to COVID-19.
"[North Korea's] trade with China in March and April declined by over 90% following the border shutdown," said Tomas Ojea Quintana, special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, in a statement.
Quintana said that "an increasing number of families eat only twice a day, or eat only corn, and there are reports that some are starving."
The human rights expert also pointed to "the detrimental impact" of international sanctions placed on North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and urged the U.N. Security Council to reconsider the sanctions.
Recent flooding following weeks of heavy downpours has also raised concerns over food supplies in North Korea, as miles of crops were reported submerged.
The U.N.'s World Food Programme said in a report last year that 10.1 million North Koreans were in need of humanitarian assistance and found that only 7% of households in the country had an acceptable diet with a frequent intake of high-protein foods and fruits.
North Korea faces chronic food shortages and suffered a devastating famine in the 1990s that some estimates claim resulted in the deaths of more than 3 million people.
The new USDA assessment projects that North Korea's food-insecure population would decline to 44.9% in 2030, due to factors such as falling grain prices and slowing population growth. The caloric gap would also diminish from 430 in 2020 to 368 to 2030, the report said.
Overall, the number of food-insecure people across the 76 low-and middle-income countries covered in the report was estimated at 844.3 million, an increase of 83.5 million, or 11%, due to COVID-19 income shock.