LONDON (AlertNet) - North Korea has asked all its 40 embassies to appeal to foreign governments for aid as it struggles to feed millions of people, according to British media reports.
The direct approach is unusual for the highly secretive regime which traditionally relies on aid from the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) China and South Korea.
The WFP has sent a team of experts to North Korea to assess food needs in the country where it says some 5 million people face food shortages.
The organisation, which regularly sounds alarm bells over the hunger crisis in North Korea, is particularly worried because this year’s winter has been so harsh. Last month was the coldest in 26 years.
But the WFP has trouble encouraging donations for its work in North Korea, which is accused of developing nuclear weapons and human rights abuses. WFP operations are only 20 percent funded.
Even before the winter, North Korea faced chronic food shortages. In November, the WFP warned that it would be short of 542,000 tonnes of grain this year.
The country is also battling an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Farms have been placed under quarantine, thousands of animals have died and large scale culling of cattle, pigs and sheep is due to begin. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is considering whether to send a mission.
"This year, all 40 North Korean embassies have been ordered by Pyongyang to ask governments for food. They have each been given a quota," an Asian diplomatic said, according to a report in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. It said the approach was made in December.
The North Korean embassy in London declined to comment. But the British government confirmed it had been approached.
“The North Korean government has raised concerns with the UK government about a lack of food over the coming months,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman said.
She added that Britain and its partners in the European Union were waiting for the WFP/FAO assessment before making any decisions.
The North Korean embassy in Prague has also approached the Czech government for help, according to Czech media.
WFP spokesman Greg Barrow said the assessment would be completed in early March.
“It’s fair to say there has been a particularly harsh winter … and this does raise our concerns about the nutrition of groups such as young children, pregnant mothers, nursing mothers and the elderly, who are always the most vulnerable,” he added.
It is understood North Korea has also informally approached some aid agencies to ask about food assistance.
Very few aid agencies work in North Korea because of restrictions imposed by the totalitarian regime. The dozen or so groups who are there are reluctant to comment because of the sensitivity of their work.
One source with good contacts in North Korea said the country also wanted help with fertiliser this year because production had fallen. Factories are not working at full capacity, partly because of problems with electricity, the source added.
Even with a good harvest North Korea can barely feed its 23 million people, partly due to its hilly terrain and antiquated farming industry. A famine in the 1990s killed an estimated 1 million people.