How severe is N. Korean famine? Hunger: There's no doubt that North Koreans are dying of starvation, but much dispute over how many.

Sun Journal

March 09, 1998|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

TUMEN, China -- At the souvenir shop in this border town, tourists pay 60 cents to peer through binoculars across the frozen Tumen river into North Korea, where a human tragedy is unfolding.

The North Korean soldiers posted at 50-yard intervals along the riverbank to prevent hungry North Koreans from slipping across to seek food in China are clearly visible. So, too, is the giant billboard of North Korea's late "Great Leader," inscribed with the words "Kim Il Sung Lives in Our Hearts Forever."

There isn't much else to see. A few scattered wisps of smoke rising from the drab apartment buildings and houses suggest habitation, but most of the chimney stacks are idle and there is no other sign of life in the seemingly deserted town of Namyang.

No one really knows what is going on in North Korea, not even the international aid agencies that have been allowed in to help alleviate the food shortages that have ravaged the country since floods devastated crops in 1995.

Now, from North Korean refugees who slip across the border into China, and from Chinese who visit relatives in North Korea, come reports that the death toll from the famine might be far worse than previously believed.

"The figure being circulated in official circles is 3 million," said a Chinese Korean who regularly visits North Korea and has close ties to North Korean officials. He said party documents he has seen cite the figure.

"Personally, from what I've seen, I believe at least 2 million have died," he said.

As the North Korean crisis enters its third year, and the world gears up to ship a record quantity of food aid, the question of the famine's scale is turning into a major controversy.

Estimates of 2 million deaths appear to be gaining currency among ethnic Koreans living on the Chinese side of the border, who are allowed occasional visits to take food to relatives on the other side.

"They say 2 million have died," said a Chinese peasant returning from one such visit. "And things are getting much, much worse."

Even if the toll were 1 million, it would make North Korea's famine one of the worst recent human disasters, on par with the Ethiopian and Somalian famines of 1984-1985 and 1992.

Adding to the sense of urgency last week was Pyongyang's admission that without increased aid, it will be out of food by the middle of the month.

The Korean Buddhist Sharing Movement questioned 472 North Koreans who had crossed into China between October and January about the circumstances of their immediate relatives. Of 2,583 family members belonging to the group, 744 had died since 1995, or 29 percent. The group concluded that at least 3 million people have died out of North Korea's pre-famine population of 24 million.

Critics say the survey is not scientific. The North Koreans who cross into China are not representative of the whole population, and most come from the northern provinces closest to China. They might have an interest in overstating the death rate, critics argue, or the aid group could be seeking to exaggerate the scale of the crisis to put pressure on the South Korean government to do more to help the North.

But some aid experts say the findings should not be dismissed. The North Korean government has produced no official estimates, does not permit international aid agencies access to all parts of the country and does not allow them to conduct the independent household surveys usually conducted during a famine to produce reliable statistics.

Most international aid groups operating in Pyongyang, however, say it is impossible for so many to have died without their noticing, even though their access to areas outside the capital is limited and always supervised by government officials.

"We have no firsthand information of deaths on this scale, and I think it would be quite hard to hide a catastrophe of that magnitude," said John Prout, deputy director of the World Food Program office in Pyongyang, which supervises the distribution of international food aid.

No one believes that the 29 percent death rate could be applied to the whole country. The army, party cadres and residents of Pyongyang receive priority in the distribution of state food. Those living in the countryside can forage for roots and grass to supplement their diets. U.S. intelligence sources last year put the death toll around 100,000.

But as many as 30 percent of the country's most vulnerable inhabitants -- mainly the 8 million or so city dwellers with no special party status -- could have died, said a senior representative of a private U.S. aid agency. He requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his group's North Korean operations.

"It's very, very credible given the number of interviews they did," he said of the findings of the Korean agency. "I think it's credible that 2 million to 3 million people have died in the past two to three years."

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