Make loaves, not war

International | The White House is reviewing policy toward North Korea, a country with a massive military and a starving population

Issue: "Power struggle," May 26, 2001

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.

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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.


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