Irish group of politicians shocked by starvation in North Korea


The first multi-party delegation of Irish politicians to visit North Korea has returned from a factfinding mission with the members shocked at the conditions they found there and deeply concerned at the prospect of a major famine this winter.

The delegation, sponsored by Trocaire, included Mr Eamon Gilmore, Democratic Left TD for Dun Laoghaire, the Labour MEP for Dublin, Ms Bernie Malone, and the former SDLP MP, Dr Joe Hendron.

"They were shocked by a combination of the state of decay and in some cases neglect which they saw," said Mr Justin Kilcullen, one of three senior staff members of Trocaire who accompanied the five-day mission.

"I am absolutely convinced there is a major humanitarian crisis in Korea," he said in Beijing after the group returned on Saturday from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

"With the short nature of the visit and limited access, it is very hard to be definitive as to the scale, but combined with the insight of other delegations it helped build up a picture," Mr Kilcullen said.

"The coming winter will be a tragedy, considering the overall state of health and nutrition. The country appears to have ground to a halt. We have difficulty seeing how the more vulnerable will get through this winter," he added.

"Following the visit we are convinced more than ever that despite the difficulties Trocaire must continue its efforts," Mr Kilcullen said.

"Our contribution has made a significant impact on the lives of individuals. We saw people getting our food and eating our food. While there we announced another half-million pounds worth of aid," he said.

The Irish delegation met a member of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party Central Committee and two vice-ministers, said Mr Kilcullen. They raised issues of human rights, arms sales and economic policies.

"Establishing this dialogue might possibly lead to some opening up of the North Korean system," he said.

"We have given an opportunity to those of a more open mind to contact those outside the system. NGOs [non-governmental organisations] are in the end not in a position to deal with the Korean food crisis alone," Mr Kilcullen pointed out.

Trocaire last month shipped its first consignment of aid to North Korea, 3,750 tonnes of rice which has arrived from Vietnam.

North Korea has been hit by three years of food shortages which it has admitted have led to loss of human lives.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation said last week that North Korea faces a shortage of 1.9 million tonnes of grain over the next year.

The director-general of the FAO, Mr Jacques Diouf, who recently visited North Korea, said the FAO would issue a fresh appeal for food aid and heavy equipment to rehabilitate barren farms in the North.

Speaking in Kuala Lumpur last Thursday after a three-day fact finding visit to North Korea, Mr Diouf said the famine-stricken North needs 1.2 million tonnes of grain over the next year after drought and tidal waves again ravaged its harvest. His visit was the UN's first assessment of North Korea's food problems.

The German Red Cross last week called the famine in North Korea one of the worst the world has seen since the second World War. It said around 10,000 children were dying of starvation every month. World Vision said that between 500,000 and two million people have died from starvation in North Korea.

The Trocaire delegation plans to hold a press conference tomorrow to report on the visit.