Transpacific flights banking out of Seoul often make a corkscrew turn to avoid North Korean airspace. In the evening the lights of the South Korean capital dazzle from the air, then fall away as hard mountains are followed by ... blackout. No sextant is needed to chart the borders of the shadowy land mass that is the most tightly controlled country in the world. When night falls not a flicker of light along much of the North Korean coast can be seen from the air.
A lighted skyline is an unscientific measure, but there is harsher evidence that, as it moves into its 53rd year under communism, North Korea is a dimmer version of its darkened self. New eyewitness reports detail how average citizens, particularly young people, are declining under the authoritarian government of leader Kim Jong-il. Acute famine, now in its sixth year in many parts of the country, has devastated much of the population. The government finances its war machine by selling missile technology to Iran, Syria, and other potential rogues. And the tight grip on individual freedom and the power structure itself-what North Korean expert Chuck Downs labels "internal control and external manipulation"-means that outsiders who want to be part of a solution have to choose between Mr. Kim's way or no way.
Famine is the surest sign of Mr. Kim's brutality. Food experts say the average civilian has been in some state of malnutrition for 10-20 years. But since widespread hunger became widely known in 1995, aid workers believe at least 2 million North Koreans have died of starvation. Medical workers say two-thirds of the country's children are undersized and face long-term health problems due to malnutrition. Hawks and doves argue over how much blame rests with government officials in Pyongyang. Famine peaked after severe winter flooding in 1996-97, but government policies are the overwhelming factor in who eats and who goes hungry. Even so, the United Nations World Food Program spends over 30 percent of its food budget on North Korea alone. The United States is sending 500,000 metric tons of grain annually.
Continuing the food program is at issue as President George W. Bush looks at North Korea. In the first weeks of his administration he pledged to review a 1994 Clinton-Kim agreement that has been guiding U.S. policy, including food and grain donations. At that time North Korea agreed not to pursue a nuclear weapons program; in exchange, the United States would assist with humanitarian aid and development of a civilian nuclear energy project. But the new administration is not satisfied that North Korea has upheld its end of a hard-to-verify deal. It wants to be sure Pyongyang is not developing long-range missiles and wants to bring an end to its export of missile technology.
The United States is the largest donor of food, followed by the European Union and a consortium of private relief groups. In recent years South Korea and China have stepped up donations, primarily for development. This year's spring harvest again will be meager. Officials say they did not receive enough fertilizer from overseas. Many Koreans will survive on rations-half-rations this year because donations to the World Food Program are down-until private plots can be harvested in summer. Even city dwellers now grow their own potatoes and pumpkins. The hungry will supplement their diets with what have become staples in North Korea: edible plants and roots, tree bark, and cabbage stalks. Food bars made of U.S.-grown wheat are in evidence, but they are stomach fillers of dubious nutritional value, and can even be harmful for people facing chronic malnutrition.
The Kim government blatantly solicits food and development but prevents aid workers-either private or public-from tracking the donations. (See WORLD, "The tin-cup tyranny," Dec. 6, 1997.) Physician Norbert Vollertsen spent 18 months beginning in 1999 treating the ill and the hungry as part of a German medical team. He photographed and taped the conditions in typical hospitals: emaciated children in striped pajamas who reminded him of Auschwitz victims "waiting to die"; surgical rooms with no scalpels or antibiotics; drip lines attached to patients via recycled beer bottles.
Officials in Pyongyang awarded Dr. Vollertsen a "Friendship Medal" for his service and granted him unusual access to medical facilities and travel privileges. He discovered two worlds in North Korea. In contrast to pathetic civilian facilities, military hospitals had abundant medicine supplies and sophisticated Western equipment. Military stores carried steaks from Argentina.
"North Korea's starvation is not the result of natural disasters," Dr. Vollertsen concluded. "The calamity is man-made. Only the regime's overthrow will end it." The government expelled him last December after he denounced Mr. Kim. He has since written widely about his experiences and aired his photos and video footage. In late May he is scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Abuse of foreign sympathy is not a new revelation. An Italian chef has recently divulged that, at the height of famine in 1997, a North Korean general flew him and a colleague to Pyongyang to make pizzas for the military brass. Ermanno Furlanis and Antonio Macchia were encouraged to bring their own pizza ovens, too. Officers studied their every technique, even measuring the distance between olives, and feasted in luxurious dining rooms during the chefs' three-week stay.
Doctors Without Borders, the international relief organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize for its ability to work in hard places, pulled out of North Korea two years ago over government interference and says it won't be going back. The organization complained that it was allowed only to use local interpreters and doctors coached in what to say, and that it could not keep tabs on its own aid. Other groups have pulled out, too. Those who remain include about 16 U.S.-based groups that work alongside the World Food Program. They acknowledge the reality of working under tyranny-portions of aid will be siphoned by the government-but say the alternative, not to deliver aid at all, is equally, if not more, abhorrent.
"You have to make connections with the government to work in North Korea," said Dave Worth, director of resource networks for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). The Pennsylvania-based organization spends about $1 million annually to feed North Koreans. In 1996 its donations made headlines when cans of meat bearing the group's name showed up on a North Korean submarine that ran aground. But the publicity gave MCC leverage for arm-twisting officials into allowing it to track its donations. Since then, Mr. Worth said, "we have worked very hard to make sure that the food goes directly to the people." MCC sends food, oil, and vitamins to preschools and day-care centers where children have been collectivized by the government. An independent marine surveyor checks the donations when they arrive in port and verifies that they are loaded on trucks bound directly for those centers. The group also has been allowed to perform onsite inspections at the schools. This, according to Mr. Worth, has reduced "shrinkage" in the amount of food reaching children's mouths to 1 percent.
Problems persist, Mr. Worth acknowledges, in the large feeding programs where the government corrals 20,000-50,000 people to work in exchange for rations. "There is no way to monitor that," he said.
U.S. policymakers puzzle over North Korea's food dependence while, at the same time, its military might grows. With land mass slightly less than the size of Mississippi and a population less than a tenth of the United States, North Korea fields the fifth largest army in the world. Its long-range missile program is "one of the driving forces" behind plans for a U.S. missile defense system, according to Larry Wortzel of the Heritage Foundation. The Bush administration this month announced that it will renew talks with North Korea, but it "will insist on concrete measures," Mr. Wortzel said. "Food aid has to come under examination because the North Koreans are buying loads of new military equipment from the Russians," said Mr. Wortzel. "If you can run major exercises and afford to buy all that military equipment, the question you have to ask is, 'Why can't you buy food for your people?'"
Until now donor countries like the United States have not looked seriously at how North Korea is nourishing its 1.2 million soldiers. Relief groups long have assumed that some of their stores were being diverted, but say it is not in large enough quantity to feed an army. Aid workers hint that food coming from another source-possibly China-feeds soldiers while the rest of the population languishes.