Nearly 40 percent of North Korea's population will need food assistance in the next year, largely because of critical shortages of fertilizer and fuel, U.N. food agencies said Monday.

The impoverished communist country has relied on foreign assistance to feed its people since natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy in the mid-1990s.

The World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization said food production was down again for the third year running, in a joint report that 8.7 million people out of North Korean's total population of 23 million — or 38 percent — will need food assistance in the coming year.

Food assistance will be needed until the next harvest, in October 2009, the report by the two Rome-based U.N. agencies predicted.

North Korea "will face a severe food situation over the coming months. Despite good weather and hard work by farmers and many city-dwellers, they could not overcome critical shortages of fertilizer and fuel," said Henri Josserand, chief of FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System, in a statement.

"The prospects for next year are bleak," Josserand said.

Blamed in the report was decline in soil fertility, shortage of inputs, floods in August 2007, and structural issues such as constraints on market activities.

A joint agency mission inspected North Korea in October, the first such comprehensive field assessment mission since 2004, the agencies said.