18 November 1998
(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.