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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


But it's hard to say how many may be dying

By Sangwon Suh and David Hsieh / Yanji

NORTH KOREANS WHO ENTER or stay in China illegally do so at grave risk. If they are caught, the Chinese authorities promptly send them home. There, the "traitors" face a homecoming of a grisly kind: they are punished by having steel wire driven through their nose and arms.

That, at least, is what a taxi driver in Yanji says he has heard ("barbaric!" he exclaims). It is one of many rumors a visitor is likely to come across in the capital of China's Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, which neighbors North Korea. Stories of impoverished North Koreans consuming grass and tree bark have long made the rounds. More recently, there has been talk of people digging up freshly buried corpses to eat. Another cab driver jokes: "I hear fat people must be very careful when they go to North Korea!" A Yanbian official -- an ethnic Korean who has relatives across the border -- denies the more fanciful rumors but admits: "The situation of the North Koreans is as serious as, or worse than, China's famines" -- a reference to the human-induced disasters in the late 1950s and early 1960s which killed 20 million to 30 million people.

Though North Korea is pretty much a closed country, it is no secret that it is suffering an acute food shortage. International aid officials have seen and heard enough to assess the severity of the crisis. "I would definitely say that all grains are out of stock in the countryside," says Ole Gronning, permanent representative of the International Red Cross in Pyongyang. "A famine is here -- now." Adds the administrative director of the U.N.'s World Food Program, Catherine Bertolini: "If the situation remains unchecked, we will be looking at one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of our time." The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization says Pyongyang has an immediate need for more than 2 million tons of grain.

Are people starving to death, or dying due to lowered resistance to disease caused by malnutrition? Hard to say for sure, and even harder to nail down numbers. Prof. Li Dongxu is an ethnic Korean academic who watches North Korea from Yanji. He says that a colleague recently visited his brother, a high-ranking Communist party official in Pyongyang, and asked if people were dying. The brother admitted to "a possibility," which Li says is tantamount to saying deaths were indeed occurring. North Koreans living near the border with China have it a bit better. Their relatives on the Chinese side regularly trek to border crossings laden with sacks of rice, maize and flour. There, they telegram or telephone their kin living inland, who come to retrieve the life-giving gifts. Frontier guards do not mind so long as they receive some food too.

The U.N. and the Red Cross are trying to coordinate an international relief effort that is achieving only limited success. Old suspicions are partly to blame. Last week, Red Cross officials from both Koreas met in Beijing for the first time in five years to discuss the terms of delivering private donations to the North. But the meeting broke up without agreement. This follows the failure of Seoul and Washington to induce Pyongyang to attend four-way peace talks (along with Beijing) with the promise of aid. North Korea demands food aid first before it sits down to discuss peace. Despite the failure of the latest Red Cross meeting, aid officials remain upbeat, partly because the North did say it was ready to come to the table again "anytime."

Even if large amounts of aid do eventually make their way to North Korea, they will not solve the fundamental problem that gave rise to the current food crisis: Pyongyang's bankrupt economic system. One of the troubling issues for outside observers -- and aid givers -- is that Pyongyang refuses to recognize the need for a thorough revamping of its economic structure. Instead, it is content to view the food shortage as a temporary blip that simply resulted from poor harvests. This stance is perhaps understandable, given that the regime's legitimacy is at stake. To overturn the old ideological platform, de facto leader Kim Jong Il "would have to admit that the policies, which he was intimately involved in making, have gone horribly wrong," says Li. "But if he does that, he loses authority and the mantle as [his father Kim Il Sung's] successor."

There have been some token attempts at reform, including the Sonbong-Rajin free economic zone in the northeast. But Li remains pessimistic about these half-hearted efforts. "In China, reform came first, then the economic zones," he explains. "In North Korea, they've created a zone without having introduced structural reforms to the entire economy."

So what kind of future awaits the hermit nation? The North may undergo a similar experience to that of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. "Rather than political upheaval, I see the possibility of a mass exodus," says Krzysztof Darewicz, a Polish journalist who has visited the country over 40 times. A possibility that may become probability if the food crisis persists.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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