The cruelty of the world's last Stalinists

The United Nations programme of food aid is merely propping up the North Korean regime

As we all stock our fridges and prepare for our annual Christmas gorging, it is a bit trite to remind you that many people are starving. Anybody with a vague interest in their fellow human beings knows about the endemic poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. But there is one massive famine I doubt you have heard much about.

More than 13 million people (out of a population of 20 million) are suffering from malnutrition, and the United Nations is predicting a winter famine on a vast scale. Nearly half of this country's children are suffering from such severe hunger that their physical and mental development is being seriously retarded. This is not unfolding in Africa, but instead just a few miles from a prosperous industrial economy.

It is happening in North Korea, and you haven't seen many reports because a vast range of vested interests find it convenient for the world to forget about the North Korean people.

South Koreans don't want to talk about it, because they dread the massive cost of reunification - a process that will make Germany's recent history look smooth and affordable. Western governments don't want to talk about it, because they are too busy haggling over Kim Jong II's weapons of mass destruction to act against his programme of deliberate starvation.

Most aid agencies don't want to talk about it, because there is nothing they can do: the massive amounts of aid pumped into North Korea over the past decade seem to have been stolen by the regime and made very little dent in the pandemic rates of chronic malnutrition and hunger. French aid agency Médicins Sans Frontières has completely disengaged for this reason. The world's "peace" movement don't want us to talk about it, because in this instance the United States is opposed to a horrific dictatorship, and that doesn't fit their script.

It is very hard to find reliable information about North Korea. Since the end of the Korean War in 1952, it has been a hermetically sealed Stalinist tyranny. Occasionally, however, there are glimpses of what is happening for those who care to see.

One of the clearest and most persuasive accounts is from Dr Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who lived in North Korea for the year-and-a-half up to December 2000, when he worked for an aid agency operating in the country. He was the only Westerner ever to be given a "Medal of Freedom" by the regime after he donated some of his own skin for a burns victim - and this gave him unprecedented access. He was the first Westerner who was allowed to travel freely across the countryside without a minder.

He discovered that eight- and nine-year-old children were being forced to build a vast road named "The Youth Hero Motorway."

He found that "mass starvation is being used as a tool of political control. Disobedient areas are simply cut off and starved." He saw women who had been raped in gulags, and children who had been tortured there.

There was, he found, complete brainwashing; no information from the outside world had reached them at all. The population had been raised to worship Kim II-Sung and his father, Kim Jong-II, and they thought the whole world did the same. Vollertsen explains, "They even think all of the food aid coming from South Korea and the United States is a tribute for Kim Jong-II, in order to worship [him]."

Bob Geldof famously asked in song if starving Ethiopians "know it's Christmas time at all." We should be asking if the North Koreans know if there's a world out here at all.

So what can we do to help the 20 million people trapped in North Korea? There could - just - be a utilitarian case for invading the country - a massive humanitarian intervention - despite the horrific onslaught this would precipitate against Seoul and Tokyo by Kim Jong-II. But that is clearly not going to happen, and it was pretty dumb of me to advocate it here six months ago, because the cost in human life would be almost as massive as leaving the current regime in place.

That said, an excessively zealous response to the worst tyranny on earth is surely better than evasion. This is, alas, the response of most "peace" activists, who - when the topic of North Korea is raised - simply change the subject. Gore Vidal was asked recently what he would do. "Don't you think that's their problem? That's not your problem and that's not my problem," he replied.

One obvious option would be to continue flooding the country with aid - but that is the option that has been tried for the past decade, and material circumstances actually seem to have deteriorated. Vollertsen has described how aid is hijacked by the regime and "used as a weapon against the North Korean people, by giving it to the most obedient and starving the rest."

Another option is to simply wait for internal reform. Some observers detect a "thawing" with the very limited introduction of some markets and the lifting of some price controls, but this has been extremely tentative and out of character. Predictions of a North Korean spring seem absurdly optimistic.

Vollertsen himself has pioneered a better course than any of these three flawed choices. Driven by the fact that his German countrymen have too often in their history stood aside while vast human rights abuses were being perpetrated, he now dedicates his life to fighting the "deliberate, man-made starvation and concentration camps created by Kim Jong-II." He does not talk of concentration camps lightly.

He and his colleagues help North Korean refugees to escape at border posts, coordinate the flight of North Korean "boat people" and - most interestingly - send radios into the country on balloons.

"At least the lucky few who find them will be able to get some information about the outside world," he explains. Obviously these are small gestures (although not to the people who do manage to escape or to find out that there is a world out here where some people care about them). Yet it could set a pattern for wider Western action: encouraging a flood of refugees that will precipitate the collapse of the regime.

At the moment, Vollertsen explains, "because they do not have any access to foreign media, North Koreans do not know anything about Western societies. They are brainwashed into believing that we are all homeless, drug-addicted and depraved. Because of this mis- and non-information there are no uprisings like those in the former East European countries and no defections on a mass scale. That is why our project to send radios by balloon is so potent."

Vollertsen's actions can only scratch the brittle, starving surface of the country. But at the moment, the United Nations is pouring huge sums into food aid that is merely prolonging starvation in the long term by propping up the regime that is its root cause. If all - or at least some - of this cash was diverted to a Vollertsen-style plan to flood the country with radios and information, it would do far more to tackle the source of the starvation: the brainwashed terror of the North Korean people. Would there be any better cause for the nations of the world to unite behind than informing the North Korean people that, if they rise up against the leaders who starve them and threaten us with nukes, we will support them?

Next time our politicians talk about North Korea as a "security issue", think not just of your own security from Kim Jong-II's WMD. Think about how insecure the North Korean people will be so long as Kim Jong-II's Stalinists remain in power. Merry Christmas.