North Korean Famine

Don’t look to North Korea’s propagandists for understatement. According to them, Kim Il Sung, the country’s late dictator, was "the Eternal Sun of the Nation" and "the Greatest Genius of Mankind." His son and successor, Kim Jong Il, is all that and more - even "the savior of present-day human music.

North Korean Famine

Don't look to North Korea's propagandists for understatement. According to them, Kim Il Sung, the country's late dictator, was "the Eternal Sun of the Nation" and "the Greatest Genius of Mankind." His son and successor, Kim Jong Il, is all that and more - even "the savior of present-day human music." But when it comes to the crisis gripping the North, the tone changes remarkably. "The people's food problem" is their laconic description for the spectre haunting the country. The reality, according to independent experts, is much grimmer. People appear emaciated, with loose skin hanging from shrunken bodies. Children's growth is stunted, and their hair has an orange-copper tint in a typical sign of malnourishment. Schools and offices are unheated, farm machinery lies idle because of fuel shortages, and workers clear land with their bare hands. Away from North Korea's showcase capital, Pyongyang, hundreds of thousands of people face slow-motion starvation.

So far, though, they are wasting away in virtual invisibility. In a world where even the remotest tragedy seems to fill TV screens as it happens, North Korea is a stubborn holdout. Its proud, prickly and paranoid leadership has allowed only a handful of foreigners to witness the suffering. They have returned with disturbing tales of hunger and warnings that the country is on the brink of famine. Michael Ross, an official with the United Nations' World Food Program who toured stricken areas in the southern part of North Korea in mid-March, recalled seeing people on the edge of starvation. "The safety net has been lowered inch by inch," he said, "and now it's at rock bottom for everybody."

After Ross's delegation returned from North Korea, the WFP doubled its appeal for aid to $130 million - enough to send 205,000 tonnes of food. So far, though, the international response has been lukewarm. Member nations have pledged only about 40 per cent of that amount, and the aid has just started trickling in. An American freighter, the Galveston Bay, docked in the North Korean port of Nampo last week and started unloading about 35,000 tonnes of grain. That is a drop in the bucket: UN officials estimate that North Korea has a shortfall of 1.3 million tonnes this year.

The problem is political. North Korea is the most unlovable of nations, and other countries face a dilemma: how to help the victims while not shoring up Kim Jong Il's hardline Communist regime. South Korea, the North's bitterest enemy, has frankly discouraged private relief efforts, while the United States is trying to use aid as a lever to get the North to join talks aimed at formally ending the Korean War after 44 years of a tense ceasefire.

There are few reasons, though, to doubt the severity of the situation. An American congressman, Tony Hall, returned from a trip to the North in April and reported seeing people suffering from malnutrition-related illnesses as well as hospitals running short of power and medicine. "I was stunned by what I saw," said Hall. "Evidence of slow starvation on a massive scale was everywhere we made an effort to look." Ross's WFP delegation visited three counties just north of the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas, in the area hardest hit by floods in 1995 and 1996. He saw workers clearing rocks from fields with their hands because there was no fuel for tractors. Daily rations had been cut from 700 grams of food a day to just 100 - equivalent to one bowl of rice per person. That is not enough for survival, so people were supplementing it with pickled vegetables, roots and a powder made from dried corn cobs. In other areas, travellers report people eating bark from trees. Still, Ross saw no evidence that women, children and other vulnerable people were suffering more than others. "The food, such as it is, seems to be equally distributed," he said. "The pain is evenly spread."

There are glaring exceptions to that. People in Pyongyang appear comparatively well fed, and North Korea's enormous military establishment has its own food stocks. Such inequities fuel doubts that rushing aid to the North is a good idea - or will even help those truly in need. Kim Shin Jo, a prominent defector from the North who now oversees a Christian organization in South Korea, is among those who warn that Kim Jong Il's regime will divert extra food to keep the military and other key sectors happy. "I can't understand how people can be so naïve that they let themselves be used by North Korea," he says. "It is wrong just to give food to North Korea, because those people who are really starving will not get the food."

South Korean officials say the North should first help itself. A mere five-per-cent cut to its enormous military budget would buy enough grain to ease the famine, they argue. Anyway, they ask, why help a country that spends tens of millions of dollars celebrating the birthday of Kim Il Sung with ever bigger statues and staging massive military parades - as it did as recently as mid-April? And why help a country that makes it so hard to help? In 1995, when South Korea shipped 150,000 tonnes of rice to the North, Pyongyang insisted that the southern ship hoist the North Korean flag, and arrested a crew member for taking photographs of the harbor. And just last week, South Korean Red Cross officials and their northern counterparts broke off their first face-to-face talks in five years in Beijing. The North demanded firm commitments on the timing and size of aid - guarantees the South said it could not give.

The North does get supplies from other sources - especially China. U.S. officials estimate that China gave 540,000 tonnes of rice, flour, corn and other food to North Korea last year, and will give a similar amount this year. That dwarfs the amounts being discussed by the United Nations. The United States is by far the biggest donor to the World Food Program's appeal, with a pledge of $34 million. South Korea has promised $8 million, with $3 million from Australia and $2.7 million from the European Union. Canada has pledged nothing - prompting an appeal from the UN organization to Ottawa. So far, Canada has taken North Korea off a list of countries barred from receiving humanitarian aid, clearing the way for a private group to send a 15,000-tonne shipment of wheat. And the Canadian Foodgrains Bank in Winnipeg is shipping $4.5 million worth of wheat (with 80 per cent of the money coming from the Canadian International Development Agency, the rest from churches).

The larger question is how long North Korea's regime can last. It suffered a blow in February when a top official, Hwang Jang Yop, defected and denounced the North as "an abnormal system, a mix of socialism, modern feudalism and militarism." Hwang warned that the North could "turn the South into a wasteland" with nuclear and chemical weapons, and is on the verge of collapse. But despite its woes, there are no signs that Kim Jong Il's regime is in immediate danger. Lee Jong Soek, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, notes that since the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994, North Korea's military has taken centre-stage. For now, at least, it seems to be confident that its people may starve - but they will not rebel.

Maclean's May 19, 1997