North Korean Famine Watch

Time is running out in North Korea. The political situation lurches, seemingly endlessly, from uncertainty to uncertainty: the possibility of military confrontation with South Korea, on-again off-again negotiations to offically end the Korean War, the defection of North Korea's Egyptian ambassador and North Korea's subsequent withdrawal from negotiations with the US over the export of missiles.

But the human situation has a short time frame: Thousands of North Koreans are starving today and may not make it through the winter if the rest of the world doesn't start planning to help now.

With only weeks to go before what relief officials agree will be a disastrous harvest, the people of North Korea are trying to survive on a daily ration of between one and three small bowls of rice or corn. In the eastern and northeastern parts of the country, even these meager rations were stopped months ago.

The evidence I witnessed in June of the North Korean famine was striking. In an orphanage in the capital, Pyongyang, children sat quietly in a circle - not smiling, not playing, not even crawling or crying. Their hair was reddish brown, an indication of kwashiorkor, a nutritional disorder brought on by lack of protein.

In an orphanage in Sariwon, an hour south of the capital, children could barely stand up, and we could see that their arms were skinny and limp.

In parks and on the streets of Huichon, I was startled by the absence of anyone over age 60. Later, one of our government "escorts" told me that "the elderly have stopped eating" so their grandchildren can eat.

In an Asian society that reveres its elderly for their wisdom, this admission was one of the most troubling I heard.

The elderly, the sick, and children are the first to succumb in any famine. World Vision, in conducting the first nutritional survey there last month, found that 85 percent of institutionalized children were malnourished. In unscientific terms, our physician, Dr. Milton Amayun, said the children were "skin and bones with the faces of old men." The condition of the North Korean children was comparable to what he'd seen in Ethiopia during the famine of the mid-1980s.

The famine in North Korea is unlike virtually any I've witnessed in more than 15 years of famine work. I ran the US government's relief efforts for the Somalia famine in the early 1990s. Humanitarian aid crises such as this and previous famines in Ethiopia and elsewhere were devastating, yet each time the American government provided at least one-third of the food necessary to help starving people.

Now, 13 years later, however, the Clinton administration and Congress have been too slow to adopt President Reagan's doctrine of "a hungry child knows no politics."

With complex geopolitical posturing among the powers that be in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, and without the "CNN effect" of daily images of starving children, we know people in North Korea are dying. We have unconfirmed reports that as many as 120,000 died last year. That figure could quadruple in 1997.

Donor governments must urge North Korea to implement desperately needed agricultural reforms now.

The situation has become even more precarious in the past month with the loss of 70 percent of the corn crop to drought. Donor countries need to begin planning for the impending emergency, because without this food, thousands of North Koreans will not make it through the winter.

* Andrew S. Natsios, former director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance during the Bush administration, is a vice president of World Vision, a Christian humanitarian aid organization.

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