Chinese truck drivers return from North Korea with stories of hungry children and a food shortage growing steadily worse. A top Red Cross official calls the need “enormous.”
And as relief workers hurry to match shallow supply to deepening demand, the Clinton administration is under pressure from U.S.-based rescue organizations that contend the United States is doing too little.
Blaming politics, a coalition of 14 relief organizations including CARE, the Carter Center and Catholic Relief Services maintains that U.S. government action is “welcomed but insufficient … and time is running out.”
Hunger in one of the world’s most closed societies is creating dangers that stretch from North Korea’s totalitarian regime and its 23 million captive citizens to the 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in nearby South Korea.
“It’s obvious that the Clinton administration has a somewhat confused policy with respect to the famine, and it is killing people,” charged Andrew Natsios, vice president of World Vision. He said famine could lead to war if North Korea’s food troubles cause the government to crack.
U.S. government officials defend American policy as adequate, both in humanitarian terms and in the treacherous geopolitical environment of the Korean Peninsula, home to a war 44 years ago that never officially ended.
While acknowledging difficulties that are making this one of the most complicated relief missions in memory, the Americans point to $25 million in U.S. food aid now reaching North Korea. They also cite conflicting reports about the depth of the crisis and the breadth of the need.
“We still don’t know the full dimensions of the problem,” said Leonard Rogers, a senior administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development. He cited “clear evidence of severe hunger” but said ample food supplies can be shipped to North Korea in time.
“I feel comfortable that we’ve got an adequate amount of food going into North Korea in May and June,” Rogers said. “We are still concerned that this could get to a crisis - a true famine - in, say, July or August.”
Other assessments are more daunting. The United Nations World Food Program estimates that North Korea needs at least 1.3 million tons of donated food to carry the country through this year’s crisis.
So far, the United Nations has asked for 203,000 tons. The United States has contributed 77,000 tons with its $25 million. South Korea, unwilling to help without attaching strings, recently pledged $10 million.
“The current appeal really only covers about 4.7 million people. That leaves nearly 20 million people in the lurch,” said U.N. spokesman Michael Ross. “The shortage is country-wide and it affects everyone. They do need the help.”
Ells Culver, senior vice president of the Oregon-based Mercy Corps International, returned May 10 from his fourth trip in nine months to North Korea, where he saw bad conditions getting worse.
“One of the many problems is that hospitals don’t have food to offer their patients,” Culver said after visiting Hinchon, a suffering manufacturing city three hours north of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. “We went into a ward where there were malnourished children, anywhere from babies in the arms of mothers to 7- or 8-year-olds.”
Confirming other reports, Culver said many North Korean children no longer go to school because their parents have no lunches to send with them. The central food distribution system has broken down. On the streets, he saw hungry children who showed signs of poor health.
“Half the kids had their hair beginning to turn reddish,” Culver said, describing classic signs of malnutrition. “They had scabies, ringworm. They were in bad shape.”
Despite the need, North Korea is making famine relief difficult. Zealously marshaling the power of a police state, the government of Kim Jong Il only grudgingly allows outsiders to investigate the crisis and monitor the delivery of food.
One veteran relief worker said, “There have been a lot of obstacles. You name it.” He said international teams struggle to get approval from North Korea’s civilian authorities, only to run into trouble later with military commanders.
“The northeast is particularly sensitive,” said the well-connected staffer, who asked not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing negotiations with North Korea. “There are a lot of military installations up there. It’s also an area where they send political prisoners. It’s not an area where they want a lot of people running around.”
U.S. officials worry that food for starving civilians will be detoured to the Korean military. The United Nations acknowledges that it limited its relief appeal to 203,000 tons because it cannot confidently monitor a larger amount.
As the hunger worsens, a complex challenge is posed by the tormented politics of the region. North Korea and South Korea - echoed at times by the Americans - are trying to use food aid as a political lever.
North Korea declared last month that it would not attend peace talks designed to draw an official end to the Korean War unless it was promised great quantities of food. Meanwhile, South Korea said it would provide aid, but only if North Korea became more open.
The U.S. policy establishment is divided between those who favor using aid as a carrot to entice North Korea to change and others who believe famine relief should be delivered with no strings attached.
“There has to be some indication on the part of the North Korean government that it wishes to reach some kind of an accord and to move away from this militaristic approach,” Defense Secretary William Cohen said last month.
“There will be considerations of food assistance,” Cohen said, “but there will also be some expectation of reciprocal actions of good will on the part of the North Koreans.”