Famine continues to plague North Korea, says bipartisan US group

 

A year after reports of mass starvation in North Korea stunned the world, the situation there remains dire, with as many as 800,000 people dying from malnutrition each year, according to US officials who have just spent a week there.

Speaking in Beijing, the bipartisan US delegation of congressional aides told wrenching stories and showed graphic videotaped footage of teenagers far shorter than normal height, adults emaciated from hunger and infants too weak to sit up unassisted.

Main streets in North Korea appeared deserted, even in Pyongyang, the capital. Conditions are desperate in the countryside, where floods have ruined crops and lives, the delegation reported.

"If I were to use one word to describe our visit to rural areas, it would be `miserable'. People lack basic resources," said Ms Maria Pica. The team members said they were granted "unprecedented access" to sites across the country, including remote areas not previously visited by US observers.

Since the famine hit in 1995, between 300,000 and 800,000 North Koreans have died each year from malnutrition and related diseases, the delegation members said, citing relief agencies and interviews with refugees. The North Korean government denies such large tallies.

The visiting team credited international relief agencies with staving off more deaths, particularly among their target population of children under seven. The US has pledged 220,000 tons of food through the UN World Food Program, with China offering 110,000 tons and the EU 95,000 tons.

Proposals to increase the amount of US aid, however, have met with opposition from high-ranking Republicans who fear that the food is being diverted to feed the North Korean military. Relief workers are barred from making unscheduled on-site inspections, said one delegate.

Moreover, North Korea continues to export $500 million worth of missiles a year, said Mr Peter Brookes, a Republican. Iran and Pakistan are believed to be among its customers. Pyongyang says it will stop such trade only if the US will compensate it for the lost revenue, Mr Kirk said .

Many children live in orphanages, their parents killed in the devastating floods that swamped the country in 1995 and 1996 and precipitated the famine. Hospitals are so ill-equipped that even clean water is in short supply. Millions of people rely on alternative food sources such as ground-up weeds or cornstalks.

Reuters adds:

Japan's Prime Minister, Mr Keizo Obuchi, yesterday welcomed the expected election next month of the North Korean leader, Mr Kim Jong-il, to the presidency.

"I hope he will succeed President Kim Il-sung, acquire leadership, assume a more responsible post and contribute to the normalisation of Japan-North Korean relations," Mr Obuchi said.

Earlier the official Korean Central News Agency announced the North Korean parliament would meet on September 5th. It will be the first time it has convened since April 1994.