Under cover of darkness, the researchers interviewed hundreds of North Korean refugees who had crossed rivers and mountains into China, fleeing a closed nation racked by hunger.
They offered food, clothing, money, shelter, and confidentiality in exchange for harrowing tales of a famine that may prove to be among the greatest disasters in history.
Their stories reveal that the famine inside North Korea may have already claimed twice as many people as previously estimated by the relief organization World Vision.
More than 5 million of North Korea's 23 million people may have died so far, says Venerable Pomnyun, a South Korean Buddhist monk.
Last week in Washington, he gave his results to US officials. Some doubt the accuracy of his figures. US estimates of the famine's toll since 1994 are less than 1 million, at the outside. Pomnyun's figures were extrapolated from the number of deaths given by refugees.
He supervised 32 researchers who interviewed 500 refugees - in secret shelters or in the homes of Korean relatives in China - from October 1997 to February 1998.
Pomnyun heads the Korean Buddhist Sharing Movement, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) involved in humanitarian projects in North Korea. His claims are based on a study that relief groups say is the most comprehensive on the famine to date.
Despite the October harvest and international food aid, Pomnyun says the famine in North Korea "continues to claim a large number of victims," particularly among children under 6 and the elderly. The United States supplied North Korea with 177,000 metric tons of corn, corn meal, corn-soy blend, and rice in 1997 and has committed 200,000 metric tons of food aid and $5 million in medical assistance for 1998.
"There is a phantom war taking place in North Korea," Pomnyun says. The United Nations, international organizations, and NGOs "have a hard time really seeing how many people are dying."
US officials and relief organizations admit verifiable numbers are hard to come by in the closed-off Communist-run country.
"The situation in North Korea is obviously very serious," says a State Department official. "We know that people are starving, that kids' growth is stunted, and weaker groups are more vulnerable." While saying he believes that Pomnyun is "very sincere," the official cautions that "it is very difficult to estimate with any degree of accuracy the numbers that are dying."
A senior US Agency for International Development official, who was in North Korea in October, says, "I'd be skeptical there'd be deaths at that high level, but I can't say for sure." That doubt hedged by concern was echoed on Capitol Hill. "The numbers out of any Communist regime are not thought credible. You have to view statistics skeptically," a senior House International Relations Committee staffer said.
All, however, agreed that the situation in North Korea is grave and could result in a humanitarian crisis that would overshadow other famines of the century.
During the 1958-62 Chinese famine, some 30 million peasants out of a population of 400 million to 500 million died. In Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, 1 million out of 40 million died, and in Soviet Ukraine, 8 million perished in the 1930s from a population of 30 million.
Another plea for help
This week, North Korea warned that its people, already on starvation rations, could run out of food within two weeks.
State Department spokesman James Rubin said that the dire assessment referred to North Korea's harvest and did not include imports from China or international food aid. But he too cautioned that it was difficult to assess because North Korea "regrettably remains an opaque society."
Three years of successive crop failures - caused by record floods in 1995 and 1996 and drought in 1997 - exacerbated an already untenable situation. Failed agricultural policies, the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet assistance, and the economic disarray among the former Soviet republics - North Korea's largest trading partners - underlie the crisis.
"I saw mothers who lost their children from malnutrition and illness. I saw children who lost their parents," Pomnyun says.
While in the Chinese border town of Namyang, the monk says he met a little girl and her two brothers who had walked 300 miles from Chongjin in northeastern Korea, where their grandfather and father had died from hunger.
He says the children's grandmother and mother died during the two-month trek through icy-cold winter weather. Frostbitten, wearing tattered clothes, and without shoes, the children managed to find food and shelter in China.
"In that miserable condition they crossed the Tumen River," Pomnyun says, retracing their faltering steps on a relief map in the basement of the US Capitol. "But that is not unusual. It is very common among most of the refugees I saw."
Refugees reported that famine-related ailments had wiped out whole villages. Asked how they managed to survive since the last food distribution, the refugees said they begged, stole, swindled, and bribed. Most described eating one meal every two or three days. In one interview documented in the study, Bang, a North Korean miner, told of how he sold all his household goods to buy 22 pounds of corn powder. People have "resorted to cannibalism," he claimed. "After five or six years of food shortages, we're all exhausted."
A refugee crackdown
Many expressed fear of being caught and sent back to North Korea. Pomnyun says that in the past few months, North Korea has stepped up patrols of its border with China.
Refugees that are caught are sent to confinement camps set up last September after an order from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il for border authorities to go after the migrants.
"The refugees are embarrassing North Korea so they have to be caught," says researcher Cynthia Choi, who worked closely with Pomnyun. Refugees claimed that conditions in the camps are unsanitary and inhumane.
But Pomnyun says the UN and NGOs are not disclosing the problems. He says they want to be able to stay in North Korea. The North Korean authorities in turn try to save face by denying the severity of the famine.
Mr. Kim "doesn't know what's going on," the monk speculates. Those around him tell him that "everything is done to please him. They don't report the truth."
Ms. Choi agrees. "They are not seeing the reality. They have been brainwashed for 50 years.... They are afraid to talk to each other and so they repeat the lies.... No one talks bravely."