Stories Of Starvation Leak Out Of North Korea

Increasing Desperation Is Illustrated By Sale Of Children, Cannibalism


LEE ISLAND, North Korea -- Under a bright afternoon sun, a dozen women in red kerchiefs and ragged trousers scoured a field of withered cornstalks for the few yellowing husks that remained edible, a sign of the frightful desperation now gripping North Korea.

As famine spreads, a misery of almost unspeakable dimensions is becoming evident from the horror stories now seeping out: of starving babies reduced to skin and bone, of women selling their daughters, of families resorting to cannibalism to survive.

Farmlands, ravaged by last year's flood, are parched and yield almost nothing. In the calamity, rural North Koreans have grown accustomed to eating grass and bark. Now even those are in short supply.

North Korea bars entry to all but a small number of traders and official visitors, and their itineraries are tightly controlled, making it hard to gauge the full dimension of the economic and political disaster.

But the urgency of the situation is evident along North Korea's long border with China, both from the stories that Chinese traders bring back and from the signs visible on Lee Island, just inside the border.

Even the frontier guards, once stern symbols of the North's unbending self-control, now beg for cigarettes, liquor and food, in that order. "Have any cigarettes?" asked the head of North Korea's five-man border guard on Lee Island, a finger of land in the Yalu River dividing North Korea from China.

The officer, who gave his name as Park, lay idly on a shady patch of sand a few dozen yards from the border. He did not get up to greet a pair of visitors who stepped on stones to cross a narrow bend in the river from China, and he allowed them onto the island because they accompanied a Chinese trader who the day before had given him a pack of Chinese cigarettes, worth 12 cents.

Park shook his head when asked about farming conditions and about smuggling, which Chinese residents near the border say is growing, as desperate Korean officials sell anything they can, and guards like Park look the other way.

"They're selling government cars now, bringing them across this island," said Liu Dunping, the trader, pointing to tire tread marks in the sand.

Until last year, residents in Chinese border towns say, it was inconceivable that a North Korean guard would allow anyone to cross from China without clearance. Now, Chinese traders, many of them selling grain in exchange for copper scrap, go every day.

Chinese traders who travel farther inside the country, mostly selling flour, all seem to return with tales of human horror.

"You see women standing in front of their homes with a daughter, hoping you will stop and buy her," said Yang Xiaoyang, a truck driver in the nearby border city of Dandong, who recently returned from a day trip to North Korea.

"It's worse than last year, and that was bad already. People you see on the side of the road are skin and bone. If you stop, men come up to you and ask for liquor, even when their families have no food."

Yang said his fellow drivers compared horror stories, all secondhand and impossible to confirm, of wandering packs of children who fight each other for a scrap of food, of drunken soldiers shooting farmers for a potato, of men killing their wives or children to sell their flesh.

Now that even North Korea's leadership is admitting to severe food shortages, aid groups are shipping emergency supplies. United Nations officials estimate that the nation's grain shortage will reach more than 2 million tons this year.

Washington recently said it would send an additional $15 million worth of food, in hopes of luring North Korean officials into talks with South Korea, the United States and China to negotiate a formal peace treaty for the Korean War that ended in 1953.

China also announced new donations of 70,000 tons of grain.

The famine is unlikely to be solved by one-time shipments of food, especially when it is hard for donors to be sure that the food actually gets to the needy, given the likelihood of profiteering and speculation.

By all accounts, the economy is falling apart in North Korea, where the government's health has been declining since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped sending subsidies.

In Gulouzi, the Chinese town nearest Lee Island, a shop owner said there were a growing number of refugees coming across the river, many of them looking for assistance from relatives or friends among the large ethnic Korean population near the border.

"Last week, just before sundown, a woman came swimming across," said the shop owner, Yu Daiming. "She had a baby strapped to her back. It was skin and bone, looked like it was only a few months old."

Yu said he and his wife gave the woman a meal. Then she headed inland in search of a relative, since she did not want to be seen in the area by border guards, who are expected to apprehend refugees and send them back to North Korea, where they face likely punishment.

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