Subject: NEWS:Starving North Koreans Who Reach China
From: Jyothi Kanics (email@example.com)
Date: Fri Feb 12 1999 - 15:35:51 EST
More background on possible roots of trafficking problem in this region...
Portrait of a Famine
Starving North Koreans Who Reach China Describe a Slowly
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 12, 1999; Page A01
LUGUO, China—At a bend in the Tumen River, a stooped North
man, with the face of an 80-year-old and the body of a
stumbled down an icy road on the Chinese side of the
border here. In
broad daylight, he risked capture, deportation by China's
"I don't care anymore," said Kim Guang Il, 20, a cement
who had walked 60 snowy miles over seven days from the
port of Chongjin, wearing a flax sack for a scarf, rags
for socks and
gloves, and shoes without laces. "If I stayed hiding in
the snow, I was going
to die. If I stayed in North Korea, I was going to die. I
am too cold. And I
"You don't know what is happening in my country," he
added, a cough
tearing through his withered body, wracked by hunger and
frostbite. "We are dying slowly."
His parents, he said, were dead from disease. A brother
in the all-consuming search for food. A friend had
succumbed to hunger
and cold as they struggled to reach China. Kim left his
frozen corpse by
the side of the road, behind the billboard on the North
Korean side of the
river that proclaims: "Long Live the Great Sun of the 21st
Interviews with more than 20 refugees and private aid
officials during a
recent four-day trip to China's border with North Korea
paint a stark
picture of developments inside the isolated country where
say that a famine may have killed as many as 2 million
people since the
Refugees described a grotesque landscape of crumbling
without electricity or heat, and towns and villages where
food aid did not arrive or was reserved for ruling party
neighbors survived on twigs, leaves, cornstalks and frogs.
Some refugees spoke at night, minutes after sneaking into
China -- sliding
over the 30-foot-wide sheath of ice over the Tumen River
up the forested banks. Others talked in the homes of
members of China's
Korean minority who have given them shelter. Some children
quiet teahouses, where they were glad for a warm cup of
tea or a Coke.
Scores of these youths inhabit the streets of Yanji and
other cities in
northeastern China, sleeping in video parlors or on
construction sites and
running from the police.
Together, their stories provided another, usually
invisible dimension to
warnings in Washington, Tokyo and other capitals about
increasing prominence as an unstable international menace.
policymakers, North Korea's missile program and its
nuclear-weapons program have focused alarm. But here, amid the
snow-covered forests and fields of Manchuria, it is the
ravaging famine that
is on everybody's lips.
North Koreans have been entering China illegally since
began sweeping the country in the mid-1990s, the combined
disastrous economic policies and the collapse of the
Soviet Union, which
had been North Korea's biggest trading partner. Estimates
of the numbers
of North Koreans in northeastern China hover around
refugees commute between the two sides, profiting from the
black market in their country for food and other basic
Most refugees enter the Yanbian Korean Autonomous
China's Jilin Province, more than 600 miles northeast of
China's ethnic Korean population has clandestinely taken
in thousands of
refugees, giving them food and jobs. The area has a strong
Christianity, and, local sources say, Korean churches have
important role in the underground distribution of food and
Korean private aid officials and missionaries also are
active in the border
region, secretly sowing the seeds of religion among the
refugees as they
provide them with food, new clothes and a warm place to sleep.
Chinese sources say intelligence operatives from several
Japan, the United States, South Korea and Russia --
frequent the region in
efforts to monitor events across the border. The area is
also thick with
agents from China's State Security Ministry.
"This is a wild zone," one Western diplomat said.
"Everybody has three
identities and four ID cards. It's one of the ends of the
For several years, China tolerated the presence of
thousands of illegal
immigrants in the region and the secretive efforts to help
them. But starting
in January, the Chinese government, alarmed by a growing
local crime rate,
began expelling large numbers of Korean refugees.
Yanji increased the fine for harboring North Korean
refugees to about
$400 -- equivalent to the yearly earnings of many people
in the region.
Chinese border police, sometimes searching house by house,
rounded up hundreds of North Koreans in recent weeks --
200 from the
township of Dunhua alone in one sweep, local residents
said -- and
forcibly repatriated them to North Korea.
Refugees said those caught generally spend a week in a
Chinese jail before
being handed over to North Korean border guards. They are
on their return to the North and then, if they look young
enough, are sent to
institutions for orphans. If not, they go to a labor camp.
however, are relatively easy to escape from. This is
refugees described conditions in these institutions as
inhuman. Residents at
the orphanages get one small bowl of gruel a day, filled
spoonfuls of an unidentified green mush, according to two
had been held in different facilities. Inmates in the
labor camps said they
received no food except that provided by relatives.
Last summer, North Korea appears to have instituted a
on the border, instructing its patrols to fire on fleeing
refugees. Five bodies
with gunshot wounds were found around Tumen, a town that
border, local sources said. But lately, refugees said, the
stopped firing on them.
"Now they let us cross and when we come back over we give
and food," said a 45-year-old woman from the border city
of Hyesan who
has made five trips to China searching for food. "They are
In some cases, refugees corroborated testimony given
recently by Western
officials, such as U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Patrick Hughes, head
of the Defense
Intelligence Agency, who told Congress on Feb. 2 that the
discipline of the
North Korean army is collapsing. Many refugees reported
have taken to raiding informal markets, stealing food at
"The children of officials all used to want to join the
army because they got
food," said a 17-year-old boy who is part of a growing
North Korean street children in northeastern China. "Now,
they are in the
markets like everyone else. But they have guns." The
who stood just over 5 feet tall and looked like he hadn't
said he favored the markets back home as well because
could always steal a little food. At night, he said, he
gravitated toward the
train stations. There, amid the crowd, he could stay warm.
"And if someone dies, you might be able to steal a pair of
shoes," added a
14-year-old comrade, who had arrived in China two days before.
Food Aid Questioned
The accounts of some refugees called into question reports
by U.N. and
U.S. officials that international aid is getting to the
neediest North Koreans.
The World Food Program, which is administered by the
has said that the more than 600,000 tons of mostly
American food it gave
to North Korea last year provided nourishment to 7.47
including 5 million children aged 6 months to 12 years.
But verifying such
information is difficult: The program has fewer than 40
monitors, none of
whom speaks fluent Korean, in a country of 23 million. The
escorted wherever they go by North Korean officials, and
each trip must
be announced days in advance.
Refugees charged that international aid is being
systematically diverted to
children of members of the ruling Workers' Party and the
added that their children were either not getting or only
U.N. aid even though they live in regions where the United
distributes food. Two refugees said they were present when
employees visited their areas to monitor the distribution
of aid, one in
Hyesan in the north and the other in Chongjin in the
"I remember when the U.N. team came over to our house with
security people," said a 20-year-old woman from Hyesan,
her new home -- a farmer's thatch-roofed shack 50 miles
inside China. "It
was in August. They stayed for two hours. That month [our
even more food."
The woman said authorities chose her house because her
mother was a
member of the Workers' Party and thus received much more
food than the
average North Korean. She said her family had most of the
amenities of a
"modern life in Korea": a fan, a Russian-made washing
machine and a
Russian-made refrigerator. "We even had a calendar this
year," she said.
Paper is scarce in North Korea because many of the trees
chopped down to trade for food or for use as firewood.
"When the U.N. teams came, the government gave the rich
kids more food
in the kindergarten," said a 35-year-old miner from
Chongjin who said he
saw the team visiting the combination school and day-care
center in his
neighborhood. "When the team went away, the extra food
went away." He
said his 5-year-old daughter doesn't have the "right" to
go to the center
because the mine has closed and he is out of work. "I'm
not useful so why
should my daughter eat," he said, repeating the Communist
justification for its distribution practices.
The belief that aid is being misused in North Korea and
that aid agencies
are being blocked from the poorest people prompted two
charities, Doctors of the World and Doctors Without
Borders, to leave the
country last summer in protest. Officials with Doctors
reported seeing groups of extremely malnourished children
in several parts
of the country where they distributed aid. When they asked
for access to
the children, North Korean authorities refused.
"There is a complete contradiction between the logic of
and the logic of the North Korean regime," said Francois
Jean, the director
of research for a Paris-based foundation run by Doctors
"The deal the West has made is simple: 'We'll give you
food to bolster your
regime and then you behave.' But is that what we really
want to do? And
are the North Koreans behaving?"
Judy Cheng-Hopkins, the director of Asia programs for the
Program, said her agency is satisfied that food is getting
to people who
need it, especially to the country's 40,000 day-care
centers, schools and
hospitals. Officials of the program also stressed that
accounts for only 10 percent of the food that North Korea
needs to feed
"I'm not saying that this is textbook-perfect but we have
a pretty elaborate
plan for monitoring the aid," Cheng-Hopkins said. "We have
sub-offices, in every corner of the country, two
staff in each office. You can't pull wool over people's
eyes if they live
among you. They live there, they have eyes, they go to
restaurants, they go
One man from near Mount Kumgang, a popular tourist
destination in the
southern part of North Korea, countered that just before a
foreigners would come to his village, authorities would
turn on the
public-address system in town and order people to stay
"These people live here, but they don't see us," he said.
"We are the
"No one goes to school except children of party officials
in my town," he
added. "We were told that there is no more food because
China cut off aid
and America wants us to starve. Now, after I stayed in
China, I realized
that is nothing but lies."
The refugees charged the government of Kim Jong Il is
distribution system to bolster his control of North Korea
-- doling out food
to loyal and "useful" people and ignoring the rest.
"Things are getting worse now for the common people and
better for the
officials," said Zeng Jil, 35, an emaciated electronics
factory worker whose
2-year-old son died of meningitis. Zeng came to China in
hopes of earning
enough to support his remaining family. "It is a clear
distinction now," he
said. "My little girl is okay, but my son is gone. I was
destroyed by his
death. I didn't have the will to live. I went to the banks
of the river and
caught frogs to eat. I ate cornstalks, branches, leaves. I
found fish and
bartered them for grain."
A 37-year-old housewife from outside Pyongyang, the
capital, said her
family had received three handouts from the state's Public
System in the past year -- on Feb. 16, Oct. 15 and Jan. 1.
She has a
10-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son, who attends
a day-care center but does not get U.N. aid.
"I had to come to China to find food," said the woman, her
face pulled tight
with hunger and tension. "I worry about my children, but
if I can't get them
food they will die."
In contrast, the 20-year-old daughter of a North Korean
Hyesan said that her family had been provided with food
rations twice a
month, including a package of grain and an occasional
bottle of liquor
because of her family's elite status. But even her family
decided China was
a better bet. She was sneaked into China by her mother one
after her father died in October and the family's $50
monthly income dried
Refugees were split about whether conditions are worsening
Korea. Some said shortages had leveled off since 1996.
Others said a
slow collapse of the system was occurring before their
eyes. Different parts
of the country appear to be moving in different directions.
"The government is still in control," said Kim Jil, 27,
from near Pyongyang,
"but the whole society has no goal anymore. The common
trying to get food. The officials are getting more food.
We used to say the
soldiers were king, but they are having problems as well.
now regularly victimized by the soldiers. The children?
They spend all day
in the train station stealing food and trying to keep
warm. I had a neighbor
who died early last year. The authorities spent time
identifying him and
notifying his family. Now they don't even bother
Areas near the Chinese border seem to be somewhat better
off after North
Korean authorities relaxed restrictions in 1996 on trade
with China. Still,
after three years, refugees reported vast deforestation
and dismantling of
factories as lumber and machinery are traded for grain.
smugglers recently have begun trafficking in women to
satisfy a big market
for brides among Chinese farmers.
China's influence on the North Korean refugees appears to
be profound --
a sore point with the North Korean authorities who,
Chinese sources said,
recently demanded that China begin to crack down on the
Compared with the totalitarian state next door, China is a
paradise, where commerce and business are possible and
TV, which is not jammed in China, can be seen.
A day after sneaking into China, fresh from what he said
was the first hot
shower and best meal of his life -- featuring pork, beef,
dog and a large
pungent bowl of kimchi -- Kim Guang Il rested his swollen
feet in a safe
house in Yanji, a city of 300,000 about 50 miles from the
border. Already he had watched several videos in Korean,
provided by a
private South Korean aid agency, that railed against the
policies of the
North Korean government. It was the first time in his
life, he said, he had
ever seen anyone publicly criticize his government.
During his week-long journey to China, Kim said, he passed
and three small children who had been abandoned by their
said he didn't have the strength to bury his friend, who
died along the way.
"I don't know why I'm alive today," he said. "I could have
just as easily
Hunger in North Korea
Famine has wracked North Korea for the past several years,
thousands of people looking for food across the border in
At least 100,000 North Koreans have fled into China in
search of food in
the past four years.
2 million people -- of a population of 24 million -- have
died of hunger or
disease in North Korea since 1995.
FOOD AID cumulative
since 1995 TONS (millions)
From China 2.0
From World Food Program (U.N.) 1.2
Direct aid from individual countries 0.9
SOURCE: U.S. Institute of Peace, staff reports
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