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."
Researchers and nongovernmental organizations disagree on the proportion of food aid the North Korean government diverts, with estimates ranging from 10 to 50 percent. Diverted food aid, according to experts, is given to the military, redistributed as gifts for elites or resold - at a steep profit - to vendors in markets. John Everard, the British ambassador in Pyongyang from 2006 to 2008, said he saw rice bags labeled "World Food Program" in market halls.
In recent years, North Korea has often banned food aid monitors from traveling to the most vulnerable provinces. It also demands that monitors do not know Korean. Though North Korea makes exceptions, Prior said, it generally demands seven days' notice before monitors can visit an area.
Kim Seong-min, a former North Korean army propaganda officer who defected, said he once saw a ton of rice aid arrive at a distribution center. The military distributed the food in a village at a monitor's request but later went door to door retrieving it.
"I remember some of the collection officers were complaining about not being able to collect 100 percent of the rice," Kim said.
Partly influenced by earlier distribution challenges, the WFP last July tailored its operation in North Korea exclusively to women and children, targeting hospitals, orphanages and schools. The program gave out blends of milk and rice or milk and cereal - concoctions unlikely to be presented as gifts to the most loyal cadres.
Hunger problems, however, threaten to grow wider this year, experts say. North Korea has endured its coldest winter in six decades, and farmers worry about below-average crop output. North Korea last week confirmed an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, with its state-run news agency saying that "more than 10,000 heads of draught oxen, milch cows and pigs have so far been infected with the diseases and thousands of them died."
As of two years ago, the U.S. government ranked as the largest food donor to North Korea, giving 170,000 tons between May 2008 and March 2009. When that program was terminated, 22,700 tons of U.S.-donated food remained in the pipeline. North Korea hasn't accounted for how that food was distributed.
North Korea lost another major donor in 2008, when conservative President Lee Myung-bak came to power in South Korea. Lee promptly revoked the massive shipments of food - sometimes half a million tons annually - delivered by his liberal predecessors under the Sunshine Policy.
In recent months, numerous defector groups in South Korea have reported food shortages not just among civilians in the North but also within the 1.2 million-member military.
Good Friends, a Seoul-based aid group that has informants in the North, reported in January that the ruling Workers' Party had ordered a nationwide food donation for soldiers.
"The regime doesn't mind that much if the civilian population goes hungry," Everard said. "But if its core supporters and the military don't get fed, then it starts to get nervous."
Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.