N. Korea's Smallest Famine Victims

Has the World Forgotten These Children?

I crouched in front of the class, looking through my camera lens at the victims of one of the most severe and least-reported famines of our time.

Hwang Yun Young stood in the front row of the Sinsong Kindergarten in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. With her pretty pink lace dress and her hair pulled neatly back in a ponytail, she caught my eye. She and her classmates stood still in lines, hands by their sides, faces expressionless, some with swollen bellies, some with ribs poking through their T-shirts, some with rickets. All shared the signs of long-term malnutrition.

I would have guessed that they were three-year-olds. Their teacher told me they were six. Eighty percent of the children did not meet the height and weight standard for their age. Nutritionally dwarfed, many also are mentally and emotionally damaged from malnutrition. Only one of the 20 children in the kindergarten smiled with curiosity as I clicked away. There was no sparkle in the others' eyes, no real sign of life, no impish mischief in their faces.

North Koreans living in areas of famine - which outsiders have been kept away from - survive by eating mountain grasses, roots, seaweed, and tree bark. The German Red Cross says they are dying at a rate of 10,000 a month.

They are dependent on the largess of the international community. Yet the international community is more concerned with brokering a peace treaty to replace the armistice from the Korean War than in relieving the vast hunger sapping the energy of these children and scarring them for life.

Three years of successive crop failures (the result of floods caused by record rainfalls in 1995 and 1996), as well as the 1997 drought, have exacerbated an already untenable situation. Failed agricultural policies, the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet assistance, and the collapse of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) economies - North Korea's largest trading partners - underlie the crisis.

I WAS the first Western journalist to spend two months in North Korea and the first foreigner to visit many parts of the country, including the remote northern provinces where the famine is particularly acute.

As I accompanied food monitors - checking the delivery and distribution of 333,200 metric tons of international foodstuffs to 4.7 million targeted beneficiaries from June to August - I was struck by the helpless plight of these children.

I saw them in nurseries, kindergartens, hospitals, and orphanages from North Pyongan, Chagang, and North Hamgyong provinces, which hug the Russian and Chinese border in the north, to South Hwanghae and Kangwon provinces, which stare coldly across the demilitarized zone at South Korea.

I was impressed by the stoic devotion of the teachers, principals, nurses, and doctors in the face of this slow, silent famine that Andrew Natsios, vice president of World Vision International, says likely has killed up to 2 million this year. (Verifiable statistics are in short supply in this autarchic country.)

It is too late for many of the children. Already, the generation of children conceived and born in the floods of 1995-96 and the devastating drought of 1997 face an increased risk of death as a result of malnutrition. Many of those I saw this summer are now dead.

Western nutritional experts say the adult population, too, has reached the crisis point, and they expect to see mass starvation and death. It is reprehensible that we have not learned the lessons from the 1958-62 Chinese famine that killed 30 million peasants or the Ukraine famine of the early '30s that killed 20 million. Both were man-made; their architects, Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin.

It does not need to happen and should not happen in North Korea.

That's not to say that the North Koreans make it easy for the outside world to help. Indeed, quite the opposite. Their sense of pride and shame - too proud to admit that the very underpinnings of their agricultural and economic system have collapsed, the secret shame of knowing how disastrous the policies of state socialism have been, and the tight controls maintained over aid workers - confirm the view that these are a difficult people to help.

Yet, the international community must do more. More food aid is necessary to tide the population over the winter months. (Experts say the October harvest will barely last four months.) Only then can the difficult task of restructuring the economy begin.

* Hilary Mackenzie was the former Washington bureau chief of MacLeans, Canada's national newsweekly.

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