Have tens of thousands died in North Korea's secret famine?

Teresa Poole reports on a people hidden from the world who may be quietly starving out of sight
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The Independent Online
Peking - At the end of the Fifties, it was possible for a foreigner to visit China and remain completely unaware that tens of millions of people were starving to death as a result of the government's Great Leap Forward policies. Is it conceivable, in 1997, that a country could similarly hide the severity of a famine? Could thousands, or tens of thousands, already have died in North Korea without any of the international aid workers and visiting politicians being allowed a glimpse?

"This is our worry as well," Tun Myat, the World Food Programme's director of transport and logistics, said yesterday. "In a society where openness is not exactly the general rule, such a thing could be happening out of sight of a lot of people.

"What we are seeing so far might only be the tip of the iceberg, there might be a lot more to it than that."

Unlike China four decades ago, Pyongyang in 1997 admits to a severe food crisis, has asked for help, and has allowed food-aid workers into the country. Yet, in recent weeks, there has been a growing discrepancy between what these aid workers report and what ethnic Korean Chinese and Chinese truck drivers describe as having seen during visits across the China-North Korean border.

The aid workers speak of severe malnutrition but say they have no evidence of widespread deaths; the Chinese travellers increasingly tell of seeing starved dead bodies lying in public and executions for those who have tried to escape.

After a two-week visit to North Korea, including the WFP's first trip into the north-east provinces, Tun Myat yesterday described what he had seen as "a famine in slow motion". He added: "The population in general do not give the impression that they are about to die of starvation tomorrow ... But they are definitely starving."

He was also well aware, however, that aid workers can only travel to agreed areas, and only in the company of North Korean officials.

The WFP's first visit to North Hangyong province yielded more useful pieces for the information jigsaw. On 3 May, this province of 2.2 million people had only 600 tonnes of grain in store, a situation which is probably even worse in inland areas.

It has got to the point where Pyongyang is telling its regions "to fend for themselves", said Tun Myat. "So what do we see? We see things that you would not normally expect in North Korea."

Most surprising, given the North Korean government's iron hand over its population, were the numbers of people travelling illegally within the country, in search of food. "The trains that we took in both directions were completely covered with people, with quite heavy loads of things that they carried from one place to the other.

"We've been told that these were people who travelled without permits ... At railway stations we saw them clambering down from trains and not going through the normal exits but escaping through the rails and to the towns and villages in order to avoid being checked."

In South Hangyong, seaweed, once an occasional food, has become a staple. "In South Hangyong ... we saw people eating noodles made out of seaweed," Tun Myat said.

He explained in detail how barks and leaves were ground up with corn cobs, bean pods and mushroom stems to make into "cakes".

"These are very ingenious people. It is because of that they have sustained themselves so far. Otherwise they would be dead already."

Unlike some foreign-aid workers, Tun Myat admitted that there was no way of knowing as yet whether large numbers of people had died or not. International aid groups have not been given access to huge swathes of inland North Korea, including the regions reached by the ethnic-Korean Chinese who cross the border to visit relatives.

"There is no doubt whatsoever that food in large quantities is needed ... You've seen all those intelligence reports where the [United States] has said that perhaps as many as 100,000 have died, and I understand that the South Koreans have stated that anything up to 2,000 might be dying a day, which are all plausible things, out of sight from even those of us who are given access," Tun Myat said.

"That's the difficult and maybe exasperating part of this process, that you are given access but perhaps not full and complete access."