North Korea recently took the unusual step of begging for food handouts from the foreign governments it usually threatens.
Plagued by floods, 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 US, 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, an official.
Good Friends, a Seoul-based aid group that has informants in the North, reported in January that the party had ordered a nationwide food donation for soldiers.
“The regime doesn’t mind if the civilian population goes hungry,” John Everard, the British ambassador in Pyongyang from 2006 to 2008, said. “But if its core supporters and the military don’t get fed, then it starts to get nervous.”
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