Starvation in sight of the model village

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AT THE Tumen border crossing into North Korea, scrutinising the public face of a decaying Stalinist system has become a popular spectator sport. Chinese and South Korean tourists peer through high-powered binoculars at Namyang, the North Korean town on the other side of the Tumen river.

Namyang, knowing it is under the lens of the outside world, has positioned the props accordingly. In a country where farm animals were long ago eaten by a starving population, two horses and two cows are happily grazing. In a nation where there is generally no fuel, several chimneys puff with smoke. Careless then, to permit a lengthy burial to proceed at an open hillside cemetery, in plain sight of the assembled audience on the Chinese side.

It is also problematic for the North Korean propagandists that half a dozen stunted, teenage North Korean boys, their hair tinged red from malnutrition, are openly begging for money and food at Tumen.

"They are intelligent and sweet," remarks a Chinese tourist from Shandong province. After four years of famine, hundreds of North Korean children have sneaked across the well-guarded river border, driven by hunger.

Sitting in one of the hideouts used by the children, 16-year-old Choi, from Hwanghae, in south-west North Korea, said: "My nephew told me if we went to China we could eat our fill."

The two boys boarded one of the few trains heading north, crammed with desperate North Koreans looking for food.

"The scene on the train was a real mess. One 50-year-old man sitting on the floor fell over, and could not be revived. He died. Everyone watching sighed, and drew a long breath with an uneasy look. The people stepped over the dead," said Choi.

Other children confirm the bleak scene on the trains. Under the worsening famine, previously tight travel restrictions have broken down almost completely. One 15-year-old boy said: "There were too many people, they were squeezed to death, they could not breathe."

Another boy said he and his younger sibling had taken a week-long train journey to Namyang. "I skipped meals for a week. When the train was delayed, we stopped for about one or two days. We took off our outside jackets and sold them. Every time we stopped we sold clothes so that we could eat bread. If the people died on the train, then they threw the corpses out of the train. I saw many corpses. The people did not care, only saying `man has died'. They put the body into a sack, like flour."

The children undertake the hazardous journey because they feel they have nothing to lose. Most international food aid to North Korea has been targeted at the under sevens. But this has often left the older children to fend for themselves, foraging for roots and edible barks.

David Morton, the World Food Programme's resident co-ordinator inside North Korea, said: "The 8 to 12-year-olds ... the first thing that strikes you is how short they are. The 12-year-old looks six. In the hospitals, we see more of the school-age children in the wards. You see them, very skinny, with drawn faces."

Once the children reach the border, food seems tantalisingly near. "At last we arrived at Namyang. Looking at all the apartment houses in a row on the [Chinese] side of the Tumen river, I came to think that place was where I could eat fully and I could see hope," said Choi. But crossing the river is fraught with terror. "When I crawled into the Tumen river, I got goose-bumps because I thought someone would shoot us from behind," he said.

Once in China, the problems do not stop. Choi said: "We were waiting for South Korean tourists on the Tumen riverside to beg money. But we were caught by plainclothes Chinese policemen and had to return to North Korea [where] we were imprisoned. We were struck on the head with a club and kicked in the head until concussed."

Choi escaped after a month and made his way back across the border to China.