Aid workers reveal hidden famine stalking the fields of North Korea

A year after devastating floods drove the government of North Korea to make an unprecedented appeal for outside aid, United Nations officials believe that the food crisis is worse than ever and that they are seeing the early signs of an "African-type" famine.

Until recently, international organisations based in Pyongyang, including the UN Development Programme, World Food Programme, and the International Red Cross, emphasised that, although the food situation was serious, it could not be called a famine. But new information indicates that in isolated regions of the country the situation is acute. For the first time, they are talking of a "silent famine", growing progressively more serious.

The worst of last summer's flood damage was concentrated in the southern part of North Korea and, until recently, the Pyongyang government allowed aid and charity workers access only to these areas. UN agencies have launched appeals, and millions of dollars in food, blankets and fuel have been distributed. The government appears to have made strenuous efforts to keep urban areas well supplied; in the north-eastern cities of Rajin and Songbong, where hundreds of foreign delegates have gathered for a forum on the state's first free-trade zone, the freshly painted shops are full of pristine fruit, vegetables and fish, and the people appear healthy. But in the past few weeks, aid workers have been allowed into the more remote northern province of Chagang; the conditions they describe are the worst so far witnessed by outsiders.

Some children have been seen suffering from the bloated belly common to famine victims in Africa, which indicates severe malnutrition. In certain areas of Chagang, the food ration has been reduced to 150 grammes of rice a day. Shortages of fuel oil appear to have brought industry to a virtual standstill.

"It's an African situation," one aid worker told The Independent. "There are rusty cranes lying around, buildings washed away, the houses have flapping plastic sheets instead of windows. The people look ... in no fit state to be working in fields."

Analysts are increasingly sceptical of the Pyongyang government's insistence that, despite its appeals for help, its fundamental system of collective agriculture is sound and the present problem is a temporary consequence of the floods.

"The floods were the best thing that happened to North Korea because they allowed them to ask for help without admitting that their system is ... flawed," said Gordon Flake, director of research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. "It's a loin cloth to shield themselves from the world community."

The government has been inconsistent in its attitude to the foreign agencies, but officials report a new spirit of co-operation. "They're talking more and more about making structural changes, not just fixing the flood damage,' said a foreign worker. "The question is, will they be able to pull it off before the whole place grinds to a halt?"

n Rajin (Reuter) - North Korea's biggest experiment with capitalism bore its first fruit yesterday as foreign businessmen clinched $282m (pounds 183m) in deals with the isolated Stalinist state. Foreign executives also initialled letters of understanding to explore other deals worth $840m, North Korean officials said.

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