SEOUL  - North Korea is suffering a prolonged and widespread drought, state media says, raising fears it will worsen already dire food shortages in the impoverished communist country. If the unusually dry weather persists to the end of the month, it will be the driest May in 50 years in western coastal areas, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said, warning: "The drought is expected to get more serious." The Rodong Sinmun newspaper urged workers and government employees to help farmers in their struggles to ease crop damage from the long dry spell. "Severe drought is continuing throughout the country," the daily said on its website in an article posted on Friday.

"The fight against drought is a race against time. All sources of water must be developed and used efficiently."

Essential rice and corn planting had been badly affected, it said, and wheat, barley and potato fields had been damaged.

Reclusive North Korea suffers chronic food shortages, but the situation is frequently exacerbated by floods, droughts and mismanagement.

The official food distribution system, part of the state-directed but moribund economy, largely collapsed during the famine years of the mid- to late-1990s.

There are no official tallies, but hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are believed to have died in the famine.

International food aid has dwindled due to rows over the North's missile and nuclear programmes. The United States suspended a plan to deliver 240,000 tonnes of food after the North's latest rocket launch, on April 13.