Red Cross steps in to devastated North Korea



"We hope the government would provide some food for us but throughout the country we know the food situation is serious and there could be some difficulties before the next harvest. So I hope the Red Cross will continue to send this food," said Chu Jong Choi, straight to the camera, with a barren landscape behind him.

Other video pictures showed the remains of a collapsed dam, acres of destroyed paddy fields, and rice aid being distributed to hungry, cold farmers. It was the sort of footage that one might expect to be made available by any country suffering its worst floods this century. Except that this was North Korea.

In the world's most secretive totalitarian regime, the government does not usually beg for international help, let alone allow film footage to be taken in some of its most impoverished areas. But Pyongyang's appeal for international assistance in September, after the devastating floods, is providing first-hand evidence of poverty and hardship in a country whose official creed is self-reliance.

The latest pictures were obtained by the International Red Cross, which is providing emergency food and shelter. Piero Calvi Parisetti, the federation's head of delegation in North Korea, has been in the country since October, travelling to rural areas normally closed to foreigners. "It is so extensive, the flood damage. We visited quite a number of places and everywhere we went we saw massive destruction," he said yesterday in Peking. As well as the stricken northern provinces, the Red Cross found areas south of Pyongyang left devastated by the receding waters.

It is estimated that 500,000 people lost their homes, grain stores and belongings in the August floods. Even before that disaster, North Korea was already suffering from years of poor harvests. "Now it is clear that aid will be needed for much longer - almost certainly until the next rice harvest in the fall of 1996," said Dr Calvi Parisetti. The immediate threat is the winter, when temperatures in the north of the country can fall to -20C.

It is not only the flood areas which are in need. A Chinese visitor recently returned from North Korea confirmed that, even in the cities, the situation is bleak. "There is no meat in the market, no fruit, and scarce vegetables. People eat rice and cold pickled vegetables at home. They have to buy things with [ration] coupons. People in the north dress poorly. No fat people can be found on the streets."

The problem for the Red Cross and the UN World Food Programme has been the reluctance of international donors to give humanitarian aid to North Korea. The Red Cross is targeting 130,000 severely affected people, but its appeal in September for $4.4m (pounds 2.9m) has so far raised only $3m. The UN appeal has fared even worse. The impact of the food shortages on the North Korean government remains unclear, but at the very least the crisis has forced Pyongyang to open its borders to prying Western eyes.