New picture emerging of N. Korean famine Some doubt severity is worse than India's


TOKYO -- One of the great puzzles of Asia today is this:

Is Kim Jong Il, who was named last week as the general secretary of North Korea's ruling Workers Party, presiding over widespread famine?

It is a subject debated by Korea experts, but one thing that many agree on is that food stocks seem to have improved significantly in the past few months. There may be pockets of famine, but the harvest has begun and hundreds of thousands of tons of foreign aid have apparently alleviated the worst of the suffering -- for now.

While the public perception of North Korea is still of starving children in orphanages, that is not the impression many visitors are coming away with. All the commotion about famine may have in fact helped avert one.

"People are looking much better than we expected," said Namanga Ngongi, the deputy executive director of the World Food Program, passing through Japan after a visit to North Korea. "People are not looking in great shape, but they are not keeling over, either."

Clear improvement

Stephen W. Linton, a Korea scholar and aid worker who has made about 25 trips to North Korea, said that on his latest visit, late last month, conditions had clearly improved. "It was better than when I was there in August," he said. "And August was better than June, and June was better than May.

"I've been kind of bewildered by all the attention the famine has gotten lately," Linton added, "because this is the time of year when the situation is at its best. This is when they have the most surplus food."

North Korea is rather bewildering. Few people are allowed into North Korea or to travel around the countryside, so there is no clear reality to the country. At one extreme, there are reports filtering out of North Korea into China that the famine is so severe that people are dying in huge numbers or turning to cannibalism. One informal survey of refugees suggested that in some North Korean towns 15 percent of the people may already have died, and an aid agency extrapolated last month that 500,000 may have died of starvation and related illnesses.

At the other extreme, a North Korean defector charged last month that the famine is a sham concocted to get more foreign aid.

Better than in '50s

Ethnic Koreans are often the best able to talk to ordinary North Koreans and assess conditions among their relatives. Many say the situation is grim but still far better than the hunger they remember in both Koreas during the 1950s.

"It is a situation that is very bad, but Koreans will live, because we've gone through the war," said Jung Sook Koh, a Korean-American who grew up in Seoul in the post-war years. "We were raised in that, and here we are."

Koh delivered food aid to North Korea several years ago and has visited since, including earlier this year. "When I visit North Korea, everything reminds me of my childhood life, so it's bad for sure, and everything is lacking. But they will live."

Kim Myong Chol, an unofficial North Korean spokesman in Tokyo, argues that part of the discrepancy is a matter of what one is accustomed to. "From an American point of view, it's serious, critical, a famine situation," he says. "By North Korean standards, it's very bad, but still not so critical."

Scale of problem uncertain

There is no doubt that there is some severe malnutrition in North Korea, for aid groups have taken wrenching photos of children who seem to be starving to death, and everyone acknowledges that there have been some hunger-related deaths.

The uncertainty is about the scale and whether it is better or worse than in other developing countries.

Partly because many visitors do not see signs of hunger at all, they sometimes say that aid organizations are exaggerating the crisis to get more contributions. But on the other hand, the history of China demonstrates that it is possible for a totalitarian country to hide a famine from visitors.

From about 1958 to 1961, China endured one of the worst famines in world history, leading to about 30 million deaths. Yet, a string of visitors at the time roamed the country and concluded that there was no famine at all.

One explanation for the different versions of reality might be geographic variation. It may be that grain is getting to people in most parts of the country, those accessible to trucks and aid workers, but that there are pockets of famine in the mountains, particularly those in the north near China. That might also help account for why refugees in China describe conditions that are so desperate.

Partly because the evidence of distress is anecdotal rather than rooted in statistics, it is difficult to compare it to other countries. A recent survey of 4,000 North Korean children by the World Food Program, not a representative sample, found 17 percent suffering from serious malnutrition. By comparison, World Bank figures suggest that in India in the early 1990s, 43 percent of children were malnourished; some visitors say countries like India are chronically in worse shape than North Korea.

'India is far worse'

Ellsworth Culver, a senior vice president of Mercy Corps, an Oregon-based aid group, has just emerged from his seventh trip to North Korea, where he saw some severely malnourished children. But when he was asked to compare what he had seen with India, Culver immediately responded: "India is far worse."

Then, reflecting a moment, Culver emphasized that it is difficult to make such comparisons because so much is unknown about North Korea and because it is vulnerable to a sharp deterioration. By almost all accounts, the present stocks will run out again in the winter or spring, and North Korea will once more need foreign help.

"It's not horrible right now because action is being taken," Culver said, referring to the roughly 800,000 tons of food aid sent to North Korea since early this year. "But if action is not taken, then it will get visibly worse."

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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