Beyond a Wall of Secrecy, Devastation

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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 19, 1997

HAMHUNG, North Korea -- A visit to this remote and desolate city near North Korea's eastern coast provides a rare glimpse of the country's near-total economic collapse. The crisis is over food -- or the lack of it -- but the country's problems run much deeper, to the core of a socialist system that simply has ceased to function.

You can start at Hamhung's local hospital, a dilapidated, cavernous 1,000-bed facility without lights, where the stench of urine fills the dark corridors, and patients recovering from surgery writhe in pain on dirty sheets in unheated rooms. There are no antibiotics, no intravenous drips and no stretchers, so workers carry patients on their backs. There were only 250 patients during a recent visit; few sick people bother coming, since the hospital has no food and no medicine.

"We have a shortage of anesthesia, so the patients have to go through pain during surgery," said Dr. Lee Huyn Myung, as he points to a man gripping his mattress after a colon operation. Most of the patients have rectal, stomach or liver problems, the result of slow starvation, he said. Almost all are malnourished.

From the hospital, travel across this city past gray cement buildings that look half-finished or simply abandoned, past lots strewed with broken-down Soviet-era trucks that cannot be started because there are no spare parts. Then drive down narrow, winding mud roads until you reach the Hamhung orphanage and talk to its director, Choi Kwang Oak.

The orphanage is divided into several small rooms, with playpens for the smallest infants. Almost all the children are malnourished, with browning hair, bald patches on their scalps and sores on their heads and faces. The most severely malnourished are listless and unresponsive.

There are 198 children under age 4 at the orphanage, and about 20 percent are expected to die because they arrived too late to be helped. About 70 percent of the children here were orphaned when their parents died of malnutrition or disease, Choi said. The other 30 percent simply were abandoned and left for dead by parents too poor and too hungry to feed them.

"Some parents just put them outside on the street and leave them to nature," Choi said. "Sometimes people pick them up and bring them here." And other times? "They just die."

The orphanage is surrounded by high hills covered with graves and stone markers. It is an old burial ground, she said. But there are also many new graves.

The scenes of deprivation and hardship go on and on. There is a massive 1950s-era hotel in the town, but it is cold and apparently empty. Since power is rationed, the electricity has been turned off.

There are factories here, but they stand idle. No smoke comes from the chimneys; there is no activity inside the gates. Outside, people mill around, apparently with little to do. Nearly everyone here -- hospital workers, hotel employees, even the official government guides -- talked openly about the fuel shortage and lack of electricity.

And not even the capital, Pyongyang, about 120 miles to the southwest, is immune from the hardship, despite long being maintained as a showcase city for outsiders to witness the apparent success of the country's socialist system. Diplomats and aid workers say some parts of the city have been without water for days. Electricity is strictly rationed, and floodlights are turned off at some of the towering monuments early in the evenings. By 10 p.m., the city is plunged into darkness, with no street lights on and no lights visible from the surrounding high-rise apartment buildings.

What you also see are bicycles. Visitors to North Korea before the famine marveled at the lack of bicycles on the streets, even as people walked for miles or waited endlessly for buses. Bicycles were officially discouraged, since they promoted individualism and could allow people to move more freely. But now that fuel imports from the former Soviet Union have stopped, and with North Korea lacking hard currency to buy what it needs on the world market, many people use bicycles since buses sometimes do not run.


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© 1997 The Washington Post Company

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