News

USIS Washington 
File

18 November 1998

REP. TONY HALL 11/17 NEWS BRIEFING ON NORTH KOREAN FAMINE

(Hall says U.S. food aid critical to N. Korean children) (730)

By Steve La Rocque

USIA Staff Writer



Washington -- Grave-covered hillsides and overflowing orphanages are
the current reality in famine-stricken North Korea, Representative
Tony Hall (Democrat of Ohio) said at a November 17 press conference on
his November 8-12 trip to that country.


Hall, who chairs the House Democratic Task Force on Hunger, said the
North Koreans acknowledge one million people have died from the
four-year famine, but said that he himself would put the figure
between 1.5 and 3 million.


The North Korean government, in an Orwellian twist, has set up
"alternative food factories" that make "substitute food," according to
Hall. Factories take corncobs, husks, leaves, and stalks, blend them
with cornmeal, and create "substitute food" noodles. Hall said that
when he visited a hospital, he saw old people bent over and holding
their stomachs because the "substitute food" was not digestible.


The Congressman added that during his visit North Korean officials
tried to screen him from sights that would demonstrate the depths of
the people's misery. He cited a case in which officials ran up to a
little girl trying to chew on a corncob, slapped the corncob from her
hand, and pushed her away. The sometimes successful attempts to create
a Potemkin village effect have led some people to conclude that North
Korea has passed the worst of its food and health crises, but that is
not the case, he said.


According to Hall, roughly 80 percent of the food donations currently
feeding the North Koreans comes from the United States.


"Kids wouldn't be living today," save that American food was keeping
them alive, he said. "North Korean officials are very thankful for the
food."


But food alone will not alleviate the health problems of those who
have suffered prolonged periods of starvation or malnutrition, the
lawmaker stressed.


Many older children are about a foot under height due to malnutrition,
and this physical stunting affects their mental development as well,
said Hall.


A special UNICEF report released November 18 shows that 16 percent of
all children in North Korea are malnourished.


Hall said that among the youngest -- one and two-year-olds -- 30
percent suffer from malnourishment.


"It's clear that the food donated by the United States and others is
saving the lives of children in North Korea," Hall said. "It is
equally clear that food alone won't cure large numbers of people who
are still dying of starvation and the diseases it nurtures."


"Stopping the dying will take a new focus on health -- one sufficient
to combat the debilitating effects of contaminated water and an almost
complete lack of medicine," he continued.


The congressman criticized the North Korean government for its failure
to adequately look after the basic needs of the people and the
collapse of the country's health system.


A focus on health and medicine is "missing in the current approach of
the government of North Korea," Hall said. He added that private and
United Nations efforts are "impossibly underfunded" and stressed that
North Korea needs sanitation equipment, machinery to dig wells, and
massive training in sanitation.


"One especially disturbing report by aid workers for Oxfam found that
95 percent of the nation's drinking water is contaminated with fecal
material," Hall said.


Famine-weakened people wash clothes and vegetables in sewer water,
contract water-borne diseases, and succumb to them, he said.


Doctors operate in sunlight because there is no power. Cotton balls
are recycled from one surgery, and put on a ledge to dry before the
next, the lawmaker continued.


"I can't imagine how you could survive in a hospital (in North
Korea)," Hall said, noting a lack of antibiotics, and -- in some cases
-- anesthetics.


"It is not enough to provide the minimum amount of food to people
weakened by a bitterly cold climate and a dangerous array of diseases.
People sometimes can hold on through a 'hungry season' or two," Hall
noted, "but they can't survive on current levels of food, medicine and
heat year after year."


South Koreans and Korean-American church groups are eager to help the
people of North Korea, Hall said, but the need is overwhelming.