The woman came from the city of Hamhung and had clearly not eaten properly for weeks. Her hands were raw and flaking, and her limbs were skeletal. Her breasts were withered and she had a pink fatty growth on the back of her neck. She looked middle-aged, but she gave her age as 30.
"The sick woman had lost her mother, father, husband and two children, and she and her six-year-old girl had survived," one of the travellers, a South Korean Buddhist monk named Pomnyun, wrote later. "When I asked, 'Have you been to hospital?', she answered, 'How can I afford to go to hospital when we are dying from hunger?' "
Venerable Pomnyun and his South Korean companions were not supposed to be where they were, and their guides insisted that they move on.
"An incredible tragedy is happening in North Korea," he wrote later in the account of his journey to China. "Millions have died from food shortage and are dying now. They are dying IN SILENCE.... We have to stop this by all means if we want to keep our humanity."
Despite the work of the Venerable Pomnyun, and his organisation, the Korean Buddhist Sharing Movement (KBSM), many people around the world deny the existence of people such as this young woman. They include a European Union inspection team which visited North Korea in May and reported no signs of famine. They include the medical charity, Medecins du Monde, which said after its own trip last month, that "one does not feel one is looking at a country that is suffering from total catastrophe. The impression we got ... was one of shortages but not of a recent crisis".
North Korea has always been one of the most mysterious countries in the world, but assessments of its situation have lately become drastically polarised. On one side are those who see a difficult, but not critical situation, exploited for its own ends by the North Korean government. On the other are those such as the KBSM who believe that the country is suffering a tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions - covered up by its own government and ignored by the outside world.
The first problem is one of information; no one has a reliable picture of what is happening in the country as a whole. Since a food crisis became apparent in 1995, an unprecedented number of foreigners have been allowed to visit and even to live in Pyongyang. But their movements have been strictly controlled; and the observations of such groups have created as much confusion as clarity.
There is no doubt that in the past three years things have got worse, as floods, droughts and tidal waves have brought further devastation to a country already crippled by the drastically changed fortunes of its Cold War benefactor, the Soviet Union. The North Korean government itself has appealed for aid and - despite their reluctance to aid the last Stalinist dictatorship left on earth - donor governments (principally South Korea and the US) have provided millions of dollars-worth of assistance. But nobody seems able to agree whether that aid represents a substantial solution to the problem or a drop in the ocean. How bad, in other words, is the food situation?
The EU and Medecins du Monde concluded that it was not really so bad at all. The aid agencies operating out of Pyongyang report widespread malnutrition, but few deaths. Privately, however, some foreign diplomats give cautious credence to the estimates of private, non-governmental groups which have independently reached shocking conclusions about the scale of the famine.
A charity called World Vision estimated that between half a million and two million people died between January and August last year. Last week, a staff delegation from the US Congress returned from North Korea, suggesting that between 300,000 and 800,000 people had died every year since 1995, to a maximum of two million. And then there are the findings of the Venerable Pomnyun and the KBSM.
Unable to conduct any research in North Korea, the KBSM chose the next best place - the Chinese border area, which has always had the closest contacts with the mysterious and closed country across the Yalu and Tumen rivers. Since September last year, they have operated a team of semi-clandestine researchers who have interviewed 1,500 of the thousands of refugees who have illegally entered China from North Korea.
Most come from the eastern provinces of North and South Hamgyong, where life has always been hard, but some came from the more prosperous western provinces. KBSM's findings paint a consistently horrifying picture of a country that has largely given up trying to feed its people, more than a quarter of whom have died from starvation and famine-related disease.
Since 1992, the collective food distribution system appears to have largely broken down. Apart from the occasional, sporadic distribution of rice, individual families have been left to fend for themselves. Forty per cent of the refugees reported that they had been driven to eating roots or the bark of trees. Schools and hospitals are without fuel or adequate medicines, and more than four out of 10 people are said to be malnourished or suffering from disease.
A former coal-miner reported that his friends were collapsing in the pits from sheer hunger. Another said that malnutrition was turning the country into "a nation of dwarfs". Many of those questioned had lost members of their families - the average mortality rate among the families of those interviewed was 27 per cent. Excluding members of the elite and farmers (who until recently had a better chance of finding nourishing food), the KBSM calculates that three million North Koreans have died. Refugees report seeing dead bodies lying by the road and in railway stations, or left out in the mountains wrapped in rags.
Those who make it to China have to negotiate an obstacle course of checkpoints and inquisitive officials. Many drown while trying to swim across the rivers - their bodies are regularly found washed up on the banks. Even on the other side, they live in constant fear of capture by the Chinese police - the fate of the young woman photographed by Venerable Pomnyun.
After leaving the quarry, he bought supplies of food and medicine and had one of his associates take them to the refugees. But the woman and her companions had gone, captured by the patrols. The Chinese, almost certainly, would have escorted them back to North Korea where they would have been sent to a detention camp in which, like one million or three million or half-a-million before them, they would have died.Reuse content