North Korean Famine Continues

In North Korea, they call the concept juche. It means total self-reliance, the radical doctrine of founding ruler Kim Il-sung that the hardline Communist state can solve all its problems with no outside help.

North Korean Famine Continues

In North Korea, they call the concept juche. It means total self-reliance, the radical doctrine of founding ruler Kim Il-sung that the hardline Communist state can solve all its problems with no outside help. True to form, his son Kim Jong-il, who took over when his father died in 1994, barred foreign television cameras throughout two years of flooding and this year's severe drought. But last week, he finally opened the door a crack, desperate to attract more food aid and limit the starvation that experts now fear will kill tens of thousands of people this winter. "It is a choice between saving face and saving lives," said Dave Toycen, director of the Christian aid group World Vision Canada, after returning last week from delivering supplies to the country's 12 orphanages. "They are having to admit they have a problem bigger than they've ever dealt with before."

That admission has come hard. Official chaperones still kept news crews and aid agency photographers away from the worst-hit areas, and waved their hands in front of any lens pointed at badly emaciated children. But the scope of North Korea's crisis can no longer be hidden. A host of international relief workers, as well as a group of visiting American politicians, described the country of 24 million as already in the grip of a severe famine, with most people living on a quarter of the daily calories they need. The United Nations estimates more than five million are near starvation. "I saw an elderly man bathing himself next to a stream," said Toycen. "He looked like he just stepped out of Auschwitz."

The country is undergoing its worst drought in more than 50 years. Farmers are harvesting just 30 per cent of the usual summer yield, producing only enough to feed the country for about a month. Corn stalks that are normally two metres tall are this year only waist high and partially rotted. If there is no rain within a week or so, say North Korean officials, the autumn rice crop will also be wiped out. According to UNICEF, 80,000 children are now "severely malnourished" - the polite term for starving to death - and Toycen fears the number could soon grow to 10 times that.

For many of the most vulnerable, it is already too late, says Dr. Janet-Marie Huddle, a World Vision nutritionist from Guelph, Ont., who visited in mid-July. The number of children under six at the orphanages, known as children's centres, has doubled in recent months, she says. "This tells us there is an increase in the number of children abandoned because their families can no longer feed them." At a centre in the town of Sariwon, 35 children out of about 250 have died this year, including 15 since April, when aid agencies stepped up efforts to publicize the severity of the crisis. Bone-skinny tots lie listlessly on small beds, having no toys nor any energy to play. "There was one boy of 14 months who weighed just more than he should have weighed at birth," remembers Huddle. "It was like holding a leaf."

Earlier this year, the UN World Food Program issued a global appeal for 200,000 tonnes of food for North Korea. But experts say the country's real shortfall is 1.3 million tonnes. So far, about 317,000 tonnes has been pledged internationally. Canadians are increasingly involved. Ottawa has sent $5.5 million in food aid since April and this month pledged an additional $4.5 million. The church-supported Canadian Food Grains Bank has shipped rice, wheat and barley seed worth $4.5 million and is preparing to send another $3 million in grain. In addition to its children's program, World Vision is building five noodle factories, which are expected to feed 50,000 North Koreans a day by September. Oxfam Canada and CARE Canada are also gearing up. None of the groups is complaining about the public's response. The real problem is getting the food to the people. "We are in a much worse distribution situation than we were last year in Zaïre," says Toycen, "and there is not even a war on inside the country."

Further complicating the international relief effort is the dangerous game of brinkmanship that continues between North and South Korea, even with preliminary talks under way on a peace agreement to replace the truce that ended the 1950-1953 Korean war. This month, the latest meeting between Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing and Washington adjourned with no agreement even on an agenda. North Korea accused American officials of withholding food aid as a bargaining chip in talks. South Korea, in turn, said Pyongyang is merely at the table until it gets the aid it needs. For months now, the South Koreans have also accused the North Korean military of siphoning the food for themselves, a view bolstered by U.S. Congress members who visited the Communist state last week. The state department, however, distanced itself from that allegation. "As far as we are able to judge, nearly all our assistance thus far has been directed at helping young children," spokesman James Rubin told reporters.

In fact, Canadian visitors have been impressed by the mass effort of North Koreans to overcome their plight. In a land where regimented activity is as familiar as exhortations to love "Great Leader" Kim Jong-il, thousands of able-bodied people - old, young, civilian and military - walk back and forth with pails and cups hand-watering the fields. "Everyone we talked to is absolutely convinced that their leaders will save them, that this is solvable," said Toycen. "For them, nature is the problem."

Yet the centrally planned economy was in trouble even before the food supply was ravaged by a hail storm in 1994, floods in 1995 and 1996 and this year's drought. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1990 robbed North Korea of both markets and cheap supplies. Necessity has compelled it to open up to outsiders. While vowing never to abandon communism, Pyongyang has recently made a series of halting moves towards Chinese-style economic reform. Last month, 80 South Koreans arrived to set up a nuclear power program. The government has opened a free trade zone on the border with China and Russia. And business people from China, Japan and Hong Kong are moving into the country, mainly in the investment and trading spheres. "I have seen quite an increase in the past three months," says Pyongyang-based commodities trader Dimuth Samarasinghe, who has also spotted Americans in town scouting opportunities. "It's a very slow process, but things are happening."

Even those grudging reforms could be halted by the country's current emergency. Many factories have stopped working because there is not enough water flowing to provide sufficient electric power. In the showpiece capital, the nighttime streets are dark as the government tries to save on lighting. And the aid effort is still slow. South Korea and the United States only recently abandoned their earlier opposition to a major relief program. North Korean officials, imbued with the juche ideology, remain reluctant to give aid workers the freedom of movement they need. "It's the politics of adults," says Toycen, "that will end up killing the children."

Maclean's August 25, 1997