Image source, AFPImage caption, North Korea has been suffering shortages after blocking most overseas imports

Vulnerable children and elderly people in North Korea are at risk of starvation, a UN expert has said.

The UN's special rapporteur on human rights in the country blamed international sanctions and a Covid blockade for worsening food shortages.

As a result, North Koreans are struggling daily to "live a life of dignity" Tomas Ojea Quintana said.

He called for the sanctions – imposed over North Korea's nuclear programmes – to be lifted to prevent a crisis.

  • EXPLAINER: Why doesn't North Korea have enough food?

North Korea is thought to be in dire economic straits.

It closed its borders to contain the spread of Covid-19. Trade with China has plummeted as a result. North Korea relies on China for food, fertiliser and fuel.

This week, leader Kim Jong-un admitted the country was facing a "grim situation", the state news agency reported.

There have been reports that food prices had spiked, with NK News reporting in June that a kilogram of bananas costs $45 (£32).

In his latest report, Mr Quintana said the UN Security Council should look at easing the international sanctions and allow "humanitarian and life-saving assistance".

The US under President Joe Biden has repeatedly said it is willing to talk to North Korea, but has demanded Pyongyang give up nuclear weapons before sanctions can be eased. North Korea has so far refused.

  • EXPLAINER: What we know about North Korea's missile and nuclear programme

Earlier this week, Mr Kim blamed the US for stoking tensions, saying it needs to continue developing weapons for self-defence.

Despite its economic woes, North Korea has continued to build its weapons and missile arsenals.

It has recently tested what it claims to be new hypersonic and anti-aircraft missiles.

Media caption, North Korean soldiers smash bricks, bend iron rods in military display