A U.S. congressman who visited famine-racked North Korea this week said he saw dying children, but he could not gauge the extent of the disaster because his trip was tightly controlled by the government.
Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, making his third visit to the reclusive, crumbling nation, said that relief supplies were reaching suffering children but much more help was needed to avert wide-spread starvation.
“International food aid is getting through, and the harvest will buy a little more time, but people in the countryside continue to teeter on the brink of a massive disaster,” Hall said in Tokyo after a three-day visit to North Korea.
International relief agencies say that North Korea is in dire condition, unable to feed itself after two years of weather-related disasters, including flooding and drought.
The calamity has been intensified because of decades of inefficient state farming and the slow collapse of the economy following the disintegration of North Korea’s main trading partner, the former Soviet Union.
But because North Korea’s regime has isolated the country and generally does not allow visitors, it has been impossible to judge the seriousness of the situation.
Some relief workers have suggested that 1 million people may already have died, while the South Korean government recently estimated that food donations and the fall harvest could be enough to allow North Korea to avert calamity.
Hall said he did not learn how many people have died but said he saw extreme suffering and evidence that relief supplies were reaching the general populace and helping to save lives. He said he saw no evidence that U.S. relief supplies had been siphoned off by the military, as some visitors to North Korea have feared.
Hall said he visited an orphanage in the city of Hamhung where 40 to 50 of 198 children were sick with malnutrition-related illnesses and were expected to die.
“A number of the children had sores on their heads and hair missing that tells us they are in advanced stages of malnutrition,” he said. “Some of the children were weak, some could barely hold their heads up. I was told that some came from families who were so poor they had discarded the children.”
Hall said that North Korea’s problems go beyond food. With its economy in ruins, hospitals that he visited had no medicine or blankets and operated without electricity and heat.
“I visited a patient who had undergone surgery without enough anesthetics to ease the pain of the knife,” he said. “He now faces a recovery without antibiotics, and with only what food his family can bring for him. Next to him was a patient whose son said his family was skipping meals so that their father could eat.”
Hall said the United States was sending a $5 million package of medicines and other emergency assistance that UNICEF had requested, but much more was needed.
Humanitarian aid has been slow in going to North Korea because the government has been reluctant to allow relief workers to monitor the distribution, and most of the country is closed off to foreigners.