Beyond a Wall of Secrecy, Devastation
Rare Closeup Reveals a North Korea That No Longer Functions

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.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Tony P. Hall (D-Ohio) and this correspondent were permitted an unusual look behind the regime's wall of secrecy, traveling into areas rarely seen by outsiders, and never by an American journalist. In addition to Hamhung, which we reached in an old Soviet-made helicopter, we also took a 3 1/2-hour drive north from Pyongyang on the country's main north-south highway into the rugged mountains of Chagang province to the small town of Tongsin, stopping briefly along the way in a slightly larger town, Huichon.

From the air, the extent of the drought damage was apparent -- dry brown earth in many areas, as well as dried-up riverbeds and hills that had been cleared of all their trees. Years of overuse of petroleum-based fertilizers have destroyed much of the arable land, experts say, and hills have been stripped of their topsoil because farmers use it to cover paddy fields, causing increased flooding in the plain.

On the ground, the damage becomes more evident. Buildings look abandoned or unfinished until, on closer inspection, you see faces in the holes where the windows should be, and you realize the buildings are occupied. Huichon, particularly, looked like a ghost town -- sprawling factories fallen into disuse, cement buildings missing large sections and darkness everywhere because there is no electricity.

In Tongsin, more a large village than a town, the local hospital was washed away in last year's floods, and the makeshift one built on the same site from the debris has a few patients but no medicines, heat, or supplies. Three teenage girls were checked in because they were starving; from their body sizes, they looked more like 5- or 6-year-olds, with normal-sized heads for their age but tiny necks and limbs.

What emerged from the three-day trip, conducted mostly in the presence of government escorts, was a snapshot of a country in economic free fall and a surprising willingness on the part of the authorities to allow outsiders to see even the worst of the crisis -- like the hospital in Hamhung.

"The most difficult part as a doctor is we could treat them well if we had food and medicine," said Lee, the deputy director of the hospital in Hamhung. "We know how to treat them -- but we can't." Many patients die here, but Lee says he cannot disclose the figure because death rates are kept secret in this strictly controlled society.

"What you saw is pretty widespread," said O. Omawale, the special representative in North Korea for the United Nations Children's Fund. "I have seen kids with IV drips, with tubing you wouldn't put in your car, and the [fluid] reservoir is a bare bottle."

North Korea's predicament largely has been portrayed as a massive food shortage brought on by twin natural disasters -- destructive floods last year followed by this year's drought and record-high summer temperatures. But what was revealed on this trip is that the food crisis is just part of an overall breakdown of the country's state-controlled and centrally planned system. It has been a long and painfully slow descent that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the loss of invaluable subsidies, the major petroleum supplier, and the principal market for exports.

In Hamhung, Lee was asked how long the hospital had been in its state of collapse and shortages. The deputy director replied, "It started six or seven years ago, but it became worse this year." Six or seven years ago would date the decline to the time the Soviet Union collapsed.

Relief workers in Pyongyang seem in agreement that the food crisis, reaching famine proportions in some areas of the remote and mountainous north-central provinces, is just one more tangible sign of a total systemic collapse. "It's a large economic crisis, but it's not being addressed," said Christian C. Lemaire, the resident representative of the U.N. Development Program. "All we want to do is talk about the food problem."

Neither, it seems, does the North Korean government have a strategy for what to do to stop the free fall.

One of the world's last Marxist states, North Korea in many ways resembles a theocracy more than a doctrinaire socialist state, with the country's late founder and revered "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung, as its high priest. His portrait still hangs everywhere -- even over the hospital in Hamhung -- and the north-south highway is lined with billboards extolling his exploits.

Kim's guiding philosophy is called juche, or self-reliance, and it propelled the country's headlong rush to industrialize in the 1950s and '60s. It also has made it more difficult for North Korea's secretive rulers to admit to outsiders the extent of the crisis and to ask for outside help.

On Oct. 8, three years after the death of Kim Il Sung, his son, Kim Jong Il, officially took over leadership of the ruling Korean Workers' Party. Now some analysts are wondering whether the younger Kim might be willing to break from some of the country's socialist practices and adopt the kind of reforms needed for the country to survive.

Some relief workers here claim already to see some early, tentative signs of an opening. For one, they say, there are now six foreign relief agencies based in Pyongyang and the outlying provinces, while a year ago there were none. The workers' movements are restricted but, they say, they are slowly making progress in persuading authorities to allow them access to more places.

John Prout, deputy director of the World Food Program in North Korea, said his group had been to 110 of the country's 209 counties.

There are other small signs, relief workers say. Farmers in the hard-hit northern provinces, particularly near the Chinese border, have been told to fend for themselves, allowing them to trade privately with China. With help from the U.N. Development Program, there have been a few scattered experiments with "micro-credit," providing money to individual households to buy chickens or goats and allowing them to sell the eggs or milk on the open market.

Some North Korean farmers are said to be "double-cropping," or planting twice each year -- a practice long forbidden by Kim Il Sung. And some North Korea analysts in the United States report that massive collective farms have been reduced in size.

On the helicopter trip across the northern mountains, a few small and scattered patches of green were spotted, suggesting that some farmers in remote areas were starting private plots. In some villages, beans were being grown on makeshift terraces in back yards.

"Living here you can really see things change," said Lemaire, the UNDP representative. "But it's not change that's coming from the top. It's coming from the base."

A hint of the continued hard-line views of top North Korean officials came during the trip. In one meeting, last Tuesday evening, Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan warmly thanked Rep. Hall for U.S. food aid. "We are grateful to the United States government for the several tons of humanitarian food aid as well as the active efforts of the NGOs," or nongovernmental organizations, Kim said. But a few minutes later, Kim told Hall that North Korea and the United States "are in a state of hostile relations."

No one is predicting that the hardships will lead to any kind of popular disaffection with the regime -- and in fact, many here believe attitudes will only harden.

The personality cult built up around Kim Il Sung remains deep and pervasive, and now officials seem to be trying to transfer some of the popular affection from father to son.

In a rare interview, Foreign Minister Kim Yong Nam referred to Kim Jong Il as "the people's leader, who is acknowledged as a man of ability," a man "who has produced immortal exploits," a general who "enjoys the absolute trust and support of our people," and who embodies "the destiny of our nation as well as the future of our country."

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