IN a surprise move, reclusive North Korea is pleading for help to feed the masses in its self-styled workers' paradise. But so far, much of the world isn't listening.
Appeals made by a United Nations relief agency and the International Red Cross on behalf of the isolated nation have not been answered. And the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) announced that it was giving up on efforts to respond to the famine due to a lack of funds.
"It means that we'll not just be walking away from a major humanitarian disaster but from an opportunity to establish an international presence in North Korea, one of the most closed societies left in the world," says Michael Ross, a spokesman for WFP.
Already paralyzed by declining agriculture production, North Korea was hit last August by the worst rain in a century. The widespread flooding affected an estimated 5 million people and left 500,000 - nearly 5 percent of the country's population - homeless.
On top of an expected 20 percent drop in farm output this year, floods swept away 40 percent of the harvest and damaged more than 160,000 acres of farmland, the Red Cross says.
And a WFP team that visited North Korea in September reported widespread hunger. With the onset of winter, tens of thousands of North Koreans are facing famine and malnutrition, the UN agency says.
The WFP borrowed $2 million from its emergency account and last month delivered 5,000 tons of rice - a quarter of what the UN agency deemed essential to feed half a million people for 90 days. But without cash contributions from donor nations it cannot afford to send more. And the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has been unable to meet its $4.4 million appeal to help North Korea.
During a recent 2 - 1/2 month tour of North Korea, Piero Calvi-Parisetti, who headed the Red Cross delegation, related that "everybody said this is the most serious disaster to hit the country this century."
Still, North Korea has a major credibility gap with the United States, European Union, and other countries that would underwrite major disaster aid. As communism has lost its grip in much of the world, North Korea has remained an unrepentant Stalinist state ruled by the military and Kim Jong Il, the son of the late dictator, Kim Il Sung.
Western countries are also concerned about being unable to account for aid to a still highly secretive regime. For years, the government has put up a staunch front behind its cornerstone ideology of juche, or self-reliance. But some Western analysts say a military-backed elite has lived well in restricted cities while most of the population has suffered in the countryside.
Red Cross officials say that so far, $2.7 million of its appeal has been pledged, 80 percent of which is from Japan. "The reluctance of Western governments to give is because they expect a full report back and, in North Korea, they don't know what they will get," says Dr. Calvi-Parisetti.
Potential donors are also reluctant to contribute more, partly because of reports that the North Korean military has been hoarding rice from its permanent store instead of making supplies available to meet the civilian emergency. There have also been unconfirmed reports that half of a recent emergency food donation to Pyongyang from South Korea was sold to China for cash.
Three nations - Thailand, Switzerland, and Japan - have made direct contributions of emergency food. And only Poland and Denmark have responded to the WFP's appeals for help. The US responded with a $225,000 contribution to a separate appeal issued by the UN's Department for Humanitarian Assistance. But because of domestic budget constraints no further assistance is now contemplated, a State Department official says.
Missing from the list of aid donors are long-time enemy South Korea and communist comrade China.
Seoul has provided blankets to the Red Cross but has failed to reach an agreement with Pyongyang on food aid. UN sources speculate that Seoul would like to use food aid to leverage concessions from North Korea on other issues. Seoul has also been cool to the idea of the US sending more aid because it is reluctant to see the US-North Korean relationship, warmed by a recent nuclear deal, improve too quickly.
More glaring is the absence of Beijing which, along with the former Soviet Union, supported Pyongyang for more than four decades. Switching its focus to the economically powerful South Korea, China has moved away from its ally as it is frustrated with the high costs of aiding North Korea and has urged Pyongyang to emulate Chinese market reforms. Without the Soviet threat, Pyongyang is more expendable to China, analysts say.
But on a recent visit to Beijing in which he talked to diplomats about additional aid for North Korea, Calvi-Parisetti of the Red Cross says that some nations have been impressed with the North Korea's call for world assistance - the first time in 40 years - and see it as a policy shift. Others are more skeptical and think Pyongyang is using the crisis to rebuild its depleted food supply.