A slow silent
By Lasse Norgaard and Jon Valfells
famine in North Korea is a slow, silent one, in which the
people hide their misery and retreat to their homes to die.
It is a famine in which everyone agrees the situation is extremely
serious, but no one is sure how widespread it is. It is a
famine in which relief has been linked to politics as never
Jang Ryon Hwa is worried about her two-year-old daughter,
Rang Myong Hui. The little girl suffers from malnutrition,
and three months ago began to have digestive problems. She
has bald patches on her head and scab marks on her thin
arms and legs. Her mother was pregnant with her when the
first food shortages hit, after the 1995 floods. “She
has never had enough to eat, but her condition deteriorated
this year,” says her mother.
There are thousands of children like Rang Myong in the
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), commonly
referred to as North Korea. They were born malnourished
and have known only hunger in their short lives, their physical
and mental development forever affected.
The misery and poverty has touched all levels of society.
Although some suffer more than others, the general nutritional
status of the population has been declining for years. Food
rations distributed by the government have fallen gradually
from 700 grams per person per day two years ago to 130 grams
today. And even that is not always possible.
The same story is repeated throughout the country. Agricultural
production is either reduced or has come to a standstill.
Food is harvested manually, as the farming equipment stands
idle due to lack of fuel and spare parts. Less industry,
less agriculture, less fishing — these are all symptoms
of an economy in ruins, ex-acerbated by two consecutive
years of flooding which destroyed the infrastructure, coal
mines and arable lands.
Politics and food aid
International aid agencies, denied access to certain areas
in the country, are unable to conduct reliable surveys on
the extent of the disaster. Although they never doubted
that the situation was extremely serious, agencies spoke
with less conviction than usual, wondering what was disguised,
what was set up and what was true. It reached a point this
summer when delegations from different agencies who had
visited the country were issuing conflicting reports. Some
stated that the worst was over and the country would pull
through the crisis, while others claimed malnutrition among
children to be as high as 30 to 50 per cent.
To compound relief efforts, political manoeuvring entered
the fray. En-couraged by the response to the first international
appeal after the floods in 1995 (and again in 1996), the
International Federation launched its third appeal in November
1996. This time, though, donor support was replaced by doubt,
hesitation and reluctance. It did not help that the DPRK
itself stated food aid as a precondition for participating
in peace negotiations. Nor did it make it any easier for
aid agencies to convince donors that food and politics should
not be mixed.
Watching the situation deteriorate, the Federation was
faced with a dilemma: ring the alarm bells and talk about
an impending mass starvation, while having considerable
difficulty raising funds for its relief operations to assist
139,000 flood victims. A breakthrough came following talks
in China in May of this year between the two National Societies
on the Korean peninsula. Overcoming the political barriers
between their respective countries, South Korea agreed to
donate food and the DPRK allowed the expansion of distribution
of relief to 740,000 people.
With the increased scope of the relief programme, both
the Federation and the DPRK Red Cross faced new challenges.
The most immediate concern was to set up an independent
distribution network for the DPRK Red Cross. This was achieved
through the work of the international relief department
and over 3,500 volunteers. The distribution network is the
largest and only independent relief operation in the country
Following the appeal, the Federation also incorporated
programmes to address the underlying problems made evident
by the famine — health care and disaster preparedness.
A health programme is under way to provide essential drugs
and medical equipment to over 106 hospitals and 343 clinics
in 19 different districts. The empty clinics and hospitals
graphically revealed the weaknesses inherent in the medical
community and their capacity to treat malnutrition and other
illnesses. In some places, consultations had dropped to
25 per cent of the previous level. Additionally, a three-year
disaster preparedness programme has been launched, with
the Federation assisting the DPRK Red Cross to increase
its ability to respond effectively and to mitigate the risks
of natural disasters before they occur.
Huichon was one of the worst-affected areas during the
floods. In the paediatric ward of the concrete hospital
in the centre of the town, 50 out of 75 children are suffering
from malnutrition. Three-year-old Li Chol Nam sits listlessly
on a small bed, staring into space, his feet curled under
him. He suffered from third-degree malnutrition, the most
serious. Children under the age of three are attended by
their mothers who move into the hospital with them, older
children are attended by nurses. Li Chol is the youngest
of three siblings. His mother died of malnutrition a month
ago. When he came to the hospital, he only weighed five
kilograms. He is now six kilograms, but should weigh 15
to 16 according to Dr Chagi Chol, the assistant director.
Children like Li Chol normally stay in the hospital just
over one month. When they leave, they have not fully recovered,
but are in stable condition.
“That is all we can do. Traditional medicine, which
is all we have, cannot reverse their condition,” says
Meanwhile Li Chol sits without moving, holding a rattle
in his hand.
Worse to come
During the summer, it seemed as if the famine would not
develop into mass starvation and that the impending catastrophe
would be averted. This was partly thanks to the contributions
of the United Nations World Food Programme and the Federation,
as well as the enormous interest and goodwill of the world
media which highlighted the conditions in DPRK despite being
prevented from entering the country. Having a place on the
world agenda brought hope. There was brief optimism that
the situation could be redressed with a good harvest in
October, although no one believed it would be enough to
feed everyone for a full year.
But there were no rains in July and August and tidal waves
destroyed areas previously considered in good condition.
Optimism faded. With dim prospects for the harvest and 50
per cent less livestock from the previous year, life is
becoming even more difficult. Surviving a summer with small
rations of food has been tough. As winter approaches with
little heating and less food available than ever, the famine
may neither be slow nor silent.
Lasse Norgaard and Jon Valfells
Lasse Norgaard is a Federation information delegate. Jon Valfells
is head of the Federation’s media service.
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