TOKYO - North Korea recently took the unusual step of begging for food handouts from the foreign governments it usually threatens.
Plagued by floods, an outbreak of a livestock disease and a brutal winter, the government ordered its embassies and diplomatic offices around the world to seek help.
The request has put the United States and other Western countries in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether to ignore the pleas of a starving country or pump food into a corrupt distribution system that often gives food to those who need it least.
The United States, which suspended its food aid to North Korea two years ago amid concerns about transparency, "has no plans for any contributions at this time," said Kurt Campbell, the State Department's top East Asia official.
Meanwhile, the U.N. World Food Program, responsible for much of the food aid in North Korea, said its current food supply could sustain operations in the communist country for only another month.
"We're certainly hopeful that new donations will be coming in the upcoming weeks," said Marcus Prior, the WFP's spokesman in Asia.
Next month, the WFP plans to complete an assessment of North Korea's food situation - a report that could influence how foreign governments respond. But few doubt that North Korea's 24 million people need food.
For two decades, since the collapse of a public distribution system that supplied food rations, Kim Jong Il's government has neglected to care for its people. In the early and mid-1990s, an estimated 1 million died in a famine.
North Korea has since developed a grass-roots network of private markets - a stand-in for government programs but also the target of occasional crackdowns from a leadership that views free-market activity as a threat.
Amid the food shortages, though, humanitarian experts describe another failure: the international aid effort. Outsiders have yet to devise a formula that reaches basic standards for monitoring or effectiveness. After 15 years and about $2 billion of aid efforts, one in four pregnant women is malnourished and one in three children is stunted.
The government places obstacles at every step of the distribution process - the top complaint from U.S. officials, who demand better transparency before aid resumes.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a statement this week calling it "essential" that U.S. assistance is "actually received by hungry North Korean children and their families, rather than reinforcing the North Korean military whose care is already a priority over the rest of the population."
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