North Korea has confirmed its first outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in four years that threatens to worsen food shortages.
More than 10,000 draft oxen, cattle and pigs have been infected, with thousands already dead, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency reported.
International media reported Thursday that Pyongyang had ordered all its embassies to appeal to foreign governments for food aid in a sign of growing desperation.
The Guardian, quoting diplomatic sources, such a direct approach is highly unusual for the insular and totalitarian regime of Kim Jong-il, which normally negotiates deliveries of food assistance with international organizations such as the World Food Program.
The United Nations on Jan. 27 described the outbreak of foot-and-mouth in Asia as "unlike anything that we've seen for at least half a century."
South Korea also been hardest by the disease, while China and Mongolia have reported cases.
North Korea already relies heavily on handouts to feed its 24 million people, and is suffering following floods and as the U.N., and the U.S. and its allies maintain diplomatic and economic sanctions.
The north's dependence on animals to plow fields and haul harvests has added greater urgency to containing the outbreak before planting begins.
“Oxen are so important in North Korea’s agricultural industry that the government owns them all,” Kwon Tae Jin, a vice president of the Korea Rural Economic Institute in Seoul who specializes in the North Korea agriculture industry, told Bloomberg. “During the rice planting season you can see more oxen than tractors in the country.”
He added: "It is no doubt that the outbreak will have a negative impact on North Korea's food shortages. It is likely to worsen the nutritional imbalance of North Koreans, whose consumption of animal protein already falls far below the recommended levels."
The Guardian reported official sources in the region as saying that the regime was also having problems feeding the army, and wanted to build up a stockpile to fulfill promises of a "year of prosperity" in 2012 to mark 100 years since the birth of Kim Il-sung, the founding ruler of the Democratic People's Republic, and the 70th birthday of his son, the current leader, Kim Jong-il.