North Korea could, given the right conditions, become self-sufficient in cereals this year, after a sizable increase in harvests which has enabled it to reduce cereal imports by more than half from five years ago, a U.N. official said on Wednesday.

Hiroyuki Konuma, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) assistant director-general and regional representative for Asia and the Pacific, also said the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) needed to increase output of protein-rich crops to fight malnutrition, particularly in the impoverished north.

“I think it’s not a dream that DPRK can achieve self-sufficiency by the end of this year, if there are good weather conditions, timely provision of fertilizer, availability of quality seeds, availability of fuel for electricity, irrigation pumps, incentives to farmers,” Konuma told reporters in Bangkok after a 12-day visit to North Korea.

He said that DPRK rice output grew 11 percent in 2013, while overall 2013 production of cereals - including rice, maize, wheat, soybeans – and potatoes rose by 4 percent.

“It is quite encouraging. This is mainly, according to our analysis, due to availability of fertilizers, expanded utilization of improved variety of rice seeds,” Konuma said, adding that North Korea is using two new high-yield rice seeds, Pyongyang 49 and Pyongyang 52.

The increase has sharply reduced the country’s reliance on cereal imports to meet its needs.

“In 2009/2010, it was about 800,000 tonnes imported requirement to meet the deficit, but last year to this year (2013/2014), the deficit has become much smaller - it was 340,000 tonnes,” Konuma said.

A crop increase could be hindered by problems in the production and distribution of good quality seeds and fertilizer, he said. North Korea produces less than half the fertilizer it requires and imports most of the rest from China.

Despite improved cereal production, hunger and malnutrition remain widespread in the DPRK, particularly in the poor, mountainous north, though the situation is significantly better than five years ago.

North Korea has relied on food aid since the mid-1990s, when years of mismanagement of the farm sector and natural disasters resulted in famine that killed as many as a million people. Critics say Pyongyang spends most of its little hard currency on maintaining a million-strong army and developing nuclear weapons and missiles instead of feeding its millions of malnourished people.

According to the FAO’s State of Food Insecurity report, an estimated 7.6 million North Koreans (31 percent of the population) were undernourished in the period 2011-13, down from 9.7 million (40 percent) in 2008-2010. The agency’s March 2014 report on crop prospects and food said that 84 percent of households had “borderline or poor food consumption”.

A key challenge will be to get food produced in the more productive south and west of the country to the north, Konuma said.

“How best can we make sure the food rations will be provided to poor people in those mountain areas? This is one of the most important areas the FAO and WFP joint food security mission will be following up closely and monitoring the situation,” he said.

The FAO will also work with senior officials to increase vegetable, fruit and livestock production, to boost proteins, vitamins and minerals in the country’s diet.

“One suggestion I made is to introduce backyard gardening and school gardening in the northern part of (North) Korea so that even in small yards, backyards of the house, people can grow small amounts of items, of fruits to supplement their diets,” Konuma said. “Our diet is not only calories, but protein is also important, vitamins, minerals... DPRK has to move to diversify its production to livestock, fruit and vegetables.”