Visitor to N. Korea reports food, health care crises Ohio congressman says millions may have starved


TOKYO -- A congressman who visited remote parts of North Korea last week said yesterday that the food and health situation there was desperate and deteriorating, and that millions of North Koreans might have starved to death in the past few years.

Tony P. Hall, an Ohio Democrat, has had a longtime interest in world hunger. He passed through Tokyo on his return to the United States and showed photographs he had taken of North Korean children with patchy hair, protruding bones, open sores and other signs of severe malnutrition.

Hall also brought back a bag of what officials called "substitute food" being distributed by a government food station: dried leaves and straw, so coarse that even cattle normally would turn away.

"They grind it into powder and make it into noodles," Hall said. The noodles have no nutrition and are indigestible, leaving people with aching stomachs, he said.

North Korea has acknowledged it is facing serious economic difficulties, but assessments of how serious these are have diverged sharply.

Hall said the different assessments might have arisen because in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, life did seem to be slightly better than during his three previous visits. But in rural areas where foreigners are often barred, he said, the situation is worse than ever.

Based on visits to four hospitals, Hall emphasized that public health care had declined sharply. In one hospital, assistants were holding down a patient while surgeons conducted a stomach operation without electric lights or anesthesia.

Ordinary North Koreans are suffering, in part, because their government's hard-line policies have alienated would-be donors and aid agencies. The United Nations has repeatedly appealed for relief aid for North Korea, but the latest appeal has raised less than one-third of the target.

In September, Doctors Without Borders announced that it was pulling its staff of 13 from North Korea because it feared that its aid was going to the politically connected rather than the most needy.

North Korea does not release mortality figures or health statistics, but Hall said the United Nations had gathered and would soon release data indicating that 30 percent of North Korean children younger than 2 are acutely malnourished and that 67 percent of all children are physically stunted.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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