Beset by food shortages, North Korea recently took the unusual step of signing an accord with its arch enemy -- South Korea -- in Beijing to accept 150,000 tonnes (t) of free rice to avert the crises. It is the first instance of the communist North officially deciding to receive food aid from its capitalist rival.

North Korean officials blamed inclement weather for the shortage, but experts in Seoul (South Korea) contend that the problem is chronic and that about 2 million t of grain are needed. Embarrassed over its predicament, the North is taking pains to keep the news of the historic deal from its people.

North Korea had asked Japan for emergency food aid initially. Agreeing to help, Japan held back shipment until the North accepted South Korean aid.

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