By Jon Herskovitz
SEOUL, March 26 (Reuters) - Lingering flood damage, high commodity prices and political wrangling with the South could push impoverished North Korea this year into one of its worst food shortages since a famine in the 1990s, experts said.
North Korea might make concessions on humanitarian issues in order to receive handouts from South Korea, but Pyongyang's leaders would try to keep any crisis on its farms from spilling over into international nuclear disarmament talks, they added.
North Korea, which even with a good harvest still falls about 1 million tonnes, or around 20 percent, short of the food needed to feed its own people, relies heavily on aid from China, South Korea and U.N. aid agencies to make up the gap.
"If the South and the global community fail to send food aid to the North, we might see a food crisis even worse than the one in the 90s," said Kwon Tae-jin, an expert on the North's agriculture sector at the South's Korea Rural Economic Institute.
A famine in the mid-to-late 1990s killed more than 1 million North Koreans in a country of about 23 million.
North Korea for years has been able to receive massive food aid with few questions asked by left-of-centre South Korean governments who have seen the handouts as a small price to pay to keep the peninsula stable.
But a conservative government that took power in South Korea last month said there would no longer be a free ride for its capricious neighbour. North Korea's slow-moving government has not yet adjusted to the policy change, experts said.
New President Lee Myung-bak wants to tie aid to progress his communist neighbour makes in nuclear disarmament, reuniting families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War and returning more than 1,000 South Korean citizens believed to be still held in the North.
North Korea typically asks the South to provide it with about 300,000 tonnes of fertiliser for its spring planting as well as with 500,000 tonnes of rice. The North has been quiet this year.
"North Korea has yet to ask for fertiliser aid most likely in fear of facing rejection from the South," Kwon said.
WAITING FOR POTATOES
Without the fertiliser, North Korea is almost certain to see a fall of several tens of tonnes in its harvest, Kwon said.
The North will start to feel the shortage the hardest in the coming months when its meagre stocks of food, already depleted by flooding that hit the country last year, dry up and before the start of its potato harvest in June and July.
Another expert said he expects the North to request food aid in the next few months as it looks for measures that will meet the Lee government's calls for reciprocity.
"The new South Korean government cannot support the aid without some sort of show of good behaviour," said Nam Sung-wook, a professor of North Korean Studies at Korea University.
China, the closest thing North has to a major ally, has too many problems of its own, such as keeping runaway grain prices under control, to help its destitute neighbour.
"China cannot export to North Korea because of its bad harvest, snow damage and agricultural inflation," Nam said.
North Korea has been able to receive food aid from foes such as the United States even in tense times during nuclear talks because Washington sees that sort of assistance as helping poor people to survive, and thus outside the political arena.
"They are a different set of problems," Nam said. "North Korea wants to deal with the food crisis on a humanitarian level." (Additional reporting by Lee Jiyeon; Editing by Alex Richardson)