Inside View of N. Korea Famine

A UN worker, after two months in the secluded country, tells why leaders perpetuate an illusion of utopia despite starvation.

The air raid sirens begin each dawn like clockwork in North Korea.

As the sun clears the horizon, public loudspeakers scream out that the nation is under threat from foreign forces bent on destroying this paradise on earth.

From the cracked skyscrapers in the capital to the remotest village, every citizen who is strong enough is pressed into a brigade and given military-like instructions on the newest 24-hour struggle for survival.

Their future and that of the state, they are told, depend on the unbounded genius, military skills, and all-embracing care of the "Great Leader," who in turn is keeping a constant watch out for "turncoats."

So begins life each day for virtually every one of North Korea's 23 million citizens. Despite dwindling food supplies and a collapsing state-planned economy, North Korea's Stalinist rulers are telling their subjects to prepare to battle for their "socialist utopia."

And even as the populace is drawn into the slow-motion starvation that is spreading across the country, communist commissars monitor, instruct, and regiment every aspect of life, says Hilary Mackenzie, an aid worker at the United Nations' World Food Program. "From the cradle to the grave, from morning to night, everyone is controlled and indoctrinated," she says.

The "cult of sacrifice for the 'Great Leader' [former President Kim Il Sung] is everywhere," says Ms. Mackenzie, who has spent the past two months monitoring food shipments in the North. "In the capital's parks, little boys dressed in military uniforms march behind their teachers and sing songs of dying for the fatherland," she recalls. Yet in nearby hospitals, she adds, most of the casualties are from hunger. Mackenzie and fellow aid workers, while helping distribute foreign grain donations to the farthest reaches of the North, have caught the first glimpses in decades of the world's most secretive nation.

While constantly accompanied by government "minders," the aid workers were given free rein to randomly track the transport of grain throughout the country.

They describe the reality of Korea's famine and a parallel, nationwide drama staged by the regime of a self-described perfect, happy socialist oasis surrounded by jealous rivals.

"It's like living in a vast hall of illusions, surrounded by mirrors that reflect the same image," Mackenzie says.

"Billboards, buildings, hillsides, and farms all have huge portraits of the 'Great Leader,' " says Mackenzie, and "part of each day is spent studying his revolutionary slogans."

Fifty years ago, Kim Il Sung integrated the North's economy with many other communist states. The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the failure of its own centrally planned economy have left the North with few friends and little food three years after Kim's death.

But Kim's political heirs, led by his son, Kim Jong Il, seem to fear telling the world, or even their own people, that there is trouble in "paradise," Mackenzie says. Foreign reporters given short permits into the North are shielded from the worst excesses of the food shortages.

Because the scope of the humanitarian disaster is being hidden, she adds, potential aid donors throughout the world are limiting contributions.

She says while traveling throughout the country, "in every nursery, every kindergarten, every hospital, we saw severely malnourished children."

"Some sit in the same spot the entire day, staring vacantly into space, and no longer have the strength to walk," she says. Some hospitals have begun turning away victims of malnutrition because they have no food left.

Yet when some of her photos were published in the US, she says, North Korean officials criticized her for "harming the country's reputation."

For North Korea's citizens, "to say that there is starvation or that the economy should be reformed is a counterrevolutionary crime," a South Korean official says.

Officials at the World Food Program and other aid groups say droughts have destroyed 70 percent of the North's summer corn crop, and that food rations for many Koreans have completely stopped.

Mackenzie says while some moderates in the North's Foreign Ministry want to make a global plea for help, many in the military are against exposing the country's "weakness" or allowing in foreign aid and workers.

Pyongyang's leaders have long relied on isolation and xenophobia to rule. They fear opening the doors of North Korea and permitting their captive audience to glimpse the outside world, say South Korean and American officials.

"From the time they are born, the people are told that foreigners have North Korea trained in their gun sights," Mackenzie says.

North Korea's pervasive security network is aimed not only at foreign forces, but also at enemies within. There are military patrols and roadblocks everywhere, along with plain-clothes "thought police" who stand sentinel against would-be "traitors," including those seeking to escape the country's famine, she says.

This siege mentality is one of the many tools used to regulate Koreans, and communist hard-liners don't want to give up that control, she says.

Since already meager rations were halted in June, many have warded off starvation by eating "mountain grasses and bark," says the aid worker. "We don't know how long the population can subsist at this level," she says. "But we don't believe it's very long."

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