SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North Korea's external trade totaled $1.66 billion last year, a third less than the year before, South Korea said Thursday.

The state-run Korea Trade Association said North Korean exports dropped to $650 million last year, down 40.6 percent from 1997, while its imports fell 27 percent to $1.01 billion.

The calculations were based on customs clearance statistics compiled from 70 countries and regions, the association said.

It said the figures reflected North Korea's worsening economic difficulties amid severe shortages of food, energy and foreign currency.

Reclusive North Korea's trade with the outside world, largely former communist countries, reached $4.72 billion in 1990 but has gradually fallen since.

North Korea's major export items include textiles, machinery and marine products. About 40 percent of its imports are grains and cooking oil.

China, Japan and South Korea were North Korea's three major trading partners in 1998, accounting for about 62 percent of total trade, the association said.

North Korea has been largely dependent on foreign aid to feed its 23 million people since 1995, after decades of economic mismanagement and several years of bad weather devastated its farming system.