Congressional Aides Report High Hunger Toll in N. Korea
By John Pomfret
It was the first time Americans in government have publicly estimated the extent of North Korea's four-year-old food disaster. The staff members cited U.S. government statistics, refugee reports and the United Nations in providing their estimate, which concluded that at least 1 million people have died as a result of food shortages since 1995.
If accurate, the North Korean toll would rival the death toll in Somalia, where 1.5 million died in the early 1990s, and Ethiopia, where 1 million died in the mid-1980s.
The estimate mirrors a finding that was issued in April by a 35-member task force of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. It contended 1 million people died in North Korea in 1996 and 1997.
"That is a best-case scenario," said Mark Kirk, general counsel of the House International Relations Committee and an aide to its chairman, Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.). Kirk described living conditions in North Korea as "practically Elizabethan" and "medieval."
"If I were to use one word, it would be 'miserable,' " said Maria Pica, an aide to Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), the committee's ranking Democrat.
Last September, the Christian relief group World Vision said 1 million to 2 million North Koreans may have died in "a full-scale famine."
The week-long trip, which ended Tuesday, came at a sensitive time in the U.S.-led effort to stabilize North Korea by providing it with enough food.
Last week, U.S. officials reported that North Korea might be building a new nuclear reactor to supply its atomic weapons program in violation of the 1994 framework agreement under which North Korea would abandon its nuclear program in exchange for fuel oil and a new nuclear reactor paid for by the United States, South Korea and Japan. The United States is to raise its concerns with North Korea at high-level talks Friday in New York.
North Korea also has been accused recently of providing Iran with missile technology that aided Tehran's long-range missile program. Peter Brookes, another committee staff member, said the North Korean government volunteered to end its program of missile exports if the United States would pay Pyongyang $500 million -- or one-third of its estimated annual export earnings. Brookes said Congress would reject such an offer.
The trip also highlighted a widening gap between U.S. and European policy toward North Korea. Two leading European aid organizations have recently announced they are pulling out of North Korea because they have been denied access to citizens. The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders will be leaving by September. Doctors of the World pulled out earlier this month, saying its physicians were not allowed to choose their patients and were banned from doing preoperative work and postoperative checkups.
Earlier this year, the European Union and Japan announced that they were drastically cutting their food aid to North Korea because Kim Jong Il's regime was refusing to reform its collapsed economy.
While the United States has also lobbied North Korea to embrace market reforms, its food aid has continued. This year it will top 242,000 tons, the largest amount of any country, compared to the European Union's 94,600 tons. The Clinton administration is also considering whether to substantially increase its food aid later this year.
U.S. officials say American aid has continued because of concerns that full-scale famine in North Korea might prompt its army to attack South Korea, where 30,000 U.S. soldiers are stationed.
However, Kirk's team did not back an increase in U.S. aid to the radical Communist regime. In a letter to President Clinton on Aug. 6, Gilman and eight other congressmen warned the administration that Congress would block an increase in food aid unless North Korea allowed international monitors more access to ensure that it is not diverting donated food to its military or to the ruling Korean Workers' Party.
A North Korean submarine that ran aground off the South Korean coast last year "was stocked with food donated by an American private voluntary organization," the letter said. Delegation members also saw European Union food aid being transported in an army truck manned by soldiers to a province where no EU teams were active, Brookes said.
The World Food Program, which is leading the foreign aid effort, has 30 monitors in North Korea but North Korean authorities have strictly limited their freedom to police aid deliveries. They cannot do spot checks and North Korea has allowed only three Korean-speaking monitors to work in the country.
Kirk and his team, as invited guests of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, visited 13 institutions, including hospitals, orphanages, schools and food warehouses. They journeyed to two previously closed provinces -- Ryanggang and Changgang.
They found that North Koreans have become increasingly reliant on "alternative food," made from weeds, roots, corn stalks and a little flour. It is processed into a long wafer or into noodles and can cause diarrhea.
Kirk said he had not tasted the stuff. "When you get it close to your mouth, it smells so bad that I did not partake," he said.
They found teenagers whose growth was so stunted they were almost half the size of American children. They showed videotape of babies, their faces covered in flies, who were too weak to swat the insects away. Every child in North Korea under the age of 7 is being fed by international aid, Kirk said.
Kirk said his team concluded that North Korea's hospitals "were really hospices" because they lack food, X-ray film and medicine, including aspirin.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company