TB threat to starving Korea famine

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NORTH KOREA is facing a "critical" food shortage as it enters its fourth winter of famine, with diseases such as tuberculosis on the rise and a generation of stunted children suffering from long-term malnutrition, Western aid officials said this week.

Donor fatigue and the "complicated debate around the politics of providing support" to the world's last Stalinist state should not be allowed to divert world attention from North Korea's humanitarian tragedy, said the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Dr Astrid Heiberg, the federation's president, in Peking after a visit to North Korea, said there could be "a very, very heavy toll" from respiratory diseases and tuberculosis this winter, unless attention was given to food aid. The federation has launched a US$9m appeal for next year, particularly for drugs, essential medicines, and blankets, jackets and coal for the winter. "The situation is critical," she said.

Apart from children under three years of the age, who are the target of the food aid, the condition of the general population was not improving. Dr Heiberg said she had visited places "where the children are clearly stunted. A 10-year-old looked as if he were six or seven; a five-year- old looked as if she were three, maybe two." In one rural hospital, there were 10 beds available, "but they only had food for three patients". Substitute food, containing up to 70 per cent cattle fodder, was produced and eaten throughout the country, causing diarrhoea and protein- deficiency oedemas.

On the question of whether there were "massive" deaths from hunger in certain areas, Margareta Wahlstrom, the federation's under-secretary general for disaster relief, said: "No one can say. If you ask our agency colleagues, they say, we don't know. Do people die from hunger in the areas where we are actually working? Probably yes. Because severe chronic malnutrition leads to premature death ... In large numbers? No, I don't think so. But it is bad enough that there are maybe a small amount."

North Korean doctors had confirmed that infant and child mortality was up, and women in the country said fewer babies were being born.

Meanwhile, the North Korean regime has its own priorities, recently proceeding with an expensive satellite launch while asking for food aid, and feeding its huge army first.

Dr Heiberg said she did not want "to sound too naive" on the question of the military's share of the country's domestically produced food supply. "I know there is a system that the military has the first pick of the rations that are given ... they have kind of a priority when it comes to the food supply." But she stressed that this was not true for the international food aid.

North Korean government officials refuse to admit that the famine has as much to do with government policy as natural disasters, and are convinced that the country can soon revert to self-sufficiency. "All of them repeatedly said that they would overcome, they would have victory in the end," Dr Heiberg said.

Pyongyang has now even set a completely unrealistic target for a self- sufficient pharmaceutical industry by 2000.