Many North Koreans are heading into their third winter of famine. Relief efforts are prying open this most isolated of communist countries, but to Americans embarking on their own season of plenty, a turnaround seems impossibly far away. More than one recent visitor to North Korea reports that in some areas people are eating grass and tree bark to survive. If that picture isn't grotesque enough, it is compounded by new evidence that some food donations have been diverted to North Korea's military.
The South Korean Defense Ministry uncovered proof that what many feared about food diversions was true after inspection of a North Korean submarine that ran aground last year during a botched mission to infiltrate the South. On board the sub was found a charred label from a can of beef with greetings "in the name of Christ." The label was part of a shipment of food from the Pennsylvania-based Mennonite Central Committee, which apparently found its way into the submarine's stores. Since North Korea's famine came to light just over two years ago, many observers have feared that it was exacerbated by government officials' siphoning donated supplies to feed the country's overfed military.
The can label was discovered in August by U.S. military personnel, but news of it was not made public until earlier this month. South Korean officials released the news after finding more evidence of misuse: 1,000 tons of corn donated by a Buddhist group to a North Korean border community had been snatched by North Korean soldiers, according to a South Korean intelligence report. Even though American relief groups have the most to lose in the food foul-ups, the first report of the diversions in the West appeared in the London Guardian. The Clinton administration, according to the paper's account, "was worried that going public with proof of Pyongyang's misuse of U.S. charity would hurt President Clinton's efforts to improve relations with the North."
For months the Clinton administration has been trying to jump-start negotiations with the North Korean government to reach a formal end to the Korean War. The four-way talks, between North and South Korea, along with China and the United States, have been halted repeatedly by North Korean officials. On Nov. 21 they agreed to begin formal negotiations starting Dec. 9 in Geneva. The meetings will focus on replacing the 1953 armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War with a formal peace treaty. American soldiers, currently numbering 37,000, have been stationed at the border between North and South ever since.
North Korean officials have insisted that a promise of continued food aid be a precondition to the negotiations, while the South Korean government has said food aid could only be guaranteed once North Korea comes to the table. American and South Korean negotiators also have insisted that North Korea allow teams of American monitors to inspect food distribution.
Aid groups say the monitoring situation is improving. Andrew Natsios, vice president of World Vision, which had one representative on a monitoring team that just returned from North Korea, said relief monitors are up to around 25 this year. Last year North Korean officials allowed in only two monitors. Progress is limited compared to the need, and Mr. Natsios conceded, "North Korean [officials] don't want people in their country."
Ray Brubacher of Mennonite Central Committee said he was confident that distribution and monitoring of MCC goods had improved since an early shipment of canned meat was apparently diverted to the military. "I'm not being flippant about it, though," he told WORLD. "We did take it very seriously."
Critics of the massive relief efforts argue that, even with monitoring, North Korea is abusing international generosity. Food is fungible, say North Korean experts Robert Manning and James Przystup. "More food aid to feed civilians means more domestic production can go to keep the military well fed."
Humanitarian groups generally want to sidestep the politics of food aid. "You don't punish the people who have nothing to do with the problem," Mr. Natsios said. Rick Fisher of the Heritage Foundation countered, "The pose of charity is trying to separate itself from the larger humanitarian issue, which is peace on the Korean peninsula."
Mr. Natsios does not believe food aid is helping North Korea's soldiers disproportionately. He does think it is being used to prop up the capital area surrounding Pyongyang-which is most visible to outsiders-while the truly starving in the eastern part of the country are ignored.
Recent visitors report guarded progress because of humanitarian aid, even while uncovering more revelations of suffering. Southern California-based Christian radio broadcaster Norm Nelson, who returned from North Korea two weeks ago, said, "We saw people digging up grass and stripping bark from trees to eat. When we asked to see the kindergartens where children are reportedly suffering from malnutrition, we were told, 'Maybe next time,'" he said.
Similarly, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod World Relief's Elaine Richter, in North Korea this month, reports widespread use of bark, corn cobs, and "other forms of fiber" is supplementing many diets.
Mr. Natsios, who was in North Korea last summer, said there are problems other than the food shortage. "The electrical system has collapsed," he told WORLD. Unheated homes, combined with winter's cold and damp, are leading to an increase in tuberculosis.
All-around shortages point to problems other than natural disasters. Two years of flooding, followed by drought, then tidal waves from August's Typhoon Winnie are the cited causes of famine. None of the effects of natural pestilence, however, are visible just to the north in rural China, nor a stone's throw to the south in Seoul.
Even before the floods, North Korea endured six straight years of negative economic growth, shrinking its economy by 30 percent. "Generous economic help for North Korea should be forthcoming to the degree it reduces its military threat and opens its economy," write Korean experts Robert Manning and James Przystup. "Pyongyang should be offered the choice of keeping its gun or its tin cup. But to allow it to have both is sheer folly."
Relief agencies will structure aid for the winter based on a report due out this week from the UN World Food Program. The report will detail the size of the harvest just completed, allowing agencies to pinpoint when North Korea's food supply will wane. Based on the numbers, the United Nations will issue an appeal to donor nations, as it did last year, for a coordinated relief effort next year. Last year U.S. taxpayers contributed $8 million in food aid, making North Korea-in spite of an economic embargo-the third largest recipient of U.S. aid in Asia.