A severe winter is taking its toll on the sick and the young in North Korea, where temperatures inside hospitals and orphanages drop to freezing and medicines are in short supply, aid workers said Saturday.
The severe food shortage has eased slightly, with North Koreans eating the fall harvest and tons of food donated by aid groups, said Norwegian Red Cross officials who returned from a weeklong trip to the country.
But hospitals lack basic medicines, with some using only 10 percent of their beds because fuel is so scarce they can’t heat their rooms, said Red Cross spokeswoman Marte Ramborg.
“The critical thing now is the winter, and the medical situation in the hospitals,” Ramborg said. “Patients are lying there with blankets that are not enough.”
She said there was an increase in patients having bronchitis and pneumonia.
Economic mismanagement and the loss of Soviet aid have left North Korean industry without fuel or raw materials, compounding the suffering of three years of bad harvests. The country relies on donations for much of its food.
The Red Cross said it has flown 154,000 pounds of antibiotics and other medicines to North Korea this month. The international Federation of Red Cross Societies is buying blankets, winter jackets and coal.
Officials of the Norwegian group, which has an office in Pyongyang, North Korea, visited six hospitals and five homes in North Pyongyang and Chagang provinces, Ramborg said.
North Korean officials have not released a death toll or other details about the hunger, but have acknowledged that rates of death and malnutrition are soaring among children.
Outdoor temperatures are as low as 4 below zero, and an unusually heavy amount of snow, about 6 inches, is on the ground, Ramborg said.
She said hundreds of North Koreans with snow shovels were clearing highways because lack of fuel and spare parts has immobilized plows.