"We are estimating that of North Korea's approximately 22-23 million people, 300,000 to 800,000 die annually from the food shortage, peaking in 1997," said Mark Kirk yesterday, one of a three-strong team from the US House of Representatives' International Relations Committee (HRIC), which has just spent a week in North Korea.
"We found that the hospitals were really hospices. There is little to nothing in North Korea's entire healthcare system. The hospitals have no food, no x-ray film, no aspirin," he said.
North Korea is now well into its fourth year of severe food shortages and video footage and photographs brought back by the HRIC team showed some of the most graphic images yet of the effects of long-term malnutrition, especially in remote areas. In the orphanages, newborn babies were senseless from lack of food; in a schoolroom, 16-year-olds were so stunted that they looked five years younger.
Unlike aid workers who must take care not to jeopardise humanitarian work by offending the Stalinist North Korean government, the HRIC was more candid in some of its assessments. International food aid had saved lives, and now feeds almost all children under the age of seven, but monitoring was still "flawed", its report said, because the World Food Programme was not allowed to make unscheduled, unannounced visits. The Medecins Sans Frontieres charity is pulling out of North Korea next month after a rift with the government over restrictions.