In a dramatic and poignant sign of a state nearing collapse, North Korea has asked its embassies to appeal to foreign governments for aid to feed a population close to starvation.
The plea for help poses a major dilemma for the international community on how to deal with a totalitarian regime, which it accuses of developing a nuclear arsenal while, at the same time, facing massive and endemic deprivation.
The US stopped food aid to the country two years ago after continuing friction over Pyongyang's stance on atomic weaponry and South Korea has drastically reduced its contributions following a series of clashes including the capsizing of a warship last year. In the latest incident, North Korean forces shelled a South Korean island, Yeonpyeong, in November. Military talks aimed at defusing tensions between the two countries have broken down with no date set for any further meetings.
South Korea has a contingency plan in place for the possible implosion of its neighbour, which involves sealing the border to prevent an influx of famished refugees while sending massive amounts of aid to the North.
China, which has long served as North Korea's food supplier of last resort, faces its own food crisis as a result of a sustained drought, and, according to US State Department documents made public by WikiLeaks, Beijing has become increasingly exasperated by the seemingly intransigent stance taken on the nuclear issue by the administration of Kim Jong-il.
The direct plea for help from all quarters is highly unusual for North Korea, which normally negotiates deliveries from organisations such as the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Both the bodies have repeatedly warned of the deteriorating situation in North Korea but, at the same time, expressed concern that only a fifth of the budget needed for relief has been raised.
The Korean newspaper Joongdang Daily said North Korea would accept food from the US, maintaining that "no political considerations should be involved" in a humanitarian issue.
The regime plans to pay for some of the imported products by using its silver and coal reserves.
To add to its problems North Korea yesterday acknowledged an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease with thousands of livestock dying. Dozens of farms have been placed under quarantine and large scale culling of cattle, pigs and sheep is due to begin.
"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 source is reported to have stated. Another official from the region claimed the instruction, from Kim Jong-il, had come at the end of the year. "It was to gather as much rice as possible," he said.
The Foreign Office confirmed that the North Korean embassy in London had approached the government seeking food aid. "Any decision we make will be based on assessments currently being made of the country's food needs," a Foreign Office spokesman said. Greg Barrow, a WFP spokesman in the organisation's Rome headquarters, emphasised that measures were being taken. "They are just going out in the field. Nobody knows yet what it will say. We will distribute as much as we can get funding for, but at the moment we are 80 per cent underfunded," he said.
However, distribution of the aid is a potential sticking point. The WFP has asked for access to the distribution points after claims that the regime was using the way it put out the supplies to maintain control. Direct food shipments from abroad, if that transpired, would allow Pyongyang to avoid such scrutiny.