In a pediatric hospital in North Korea s most productive farming province, children lay two to a bed. All showed signs of severe malnutrition: skin infections, patchy hair, listless apathy.
Their mothers have to bring them here on bicycles, said duty doctor Jang Kum Son in the Yellow Sea port city of Haeju. We used to have an ambulance but it s completely broken down. One mother travelled 70 kilometres. By the time they get here, it s often too late.
It s also getting late for North Korea to get the massive amount of food aid it claims to need before the harsh winter sets in. The country s dysfunctional food-distribution system, rising global commodities prices, and sanctions imposed over Pyongyang s nuclear and missile programs had contributed to what appears to be a hunger crisis in the North, even before devastating summer floods and typhoons compounded the emergency.
The regime s appeals for massive food aid have gone mostly unanswered by a skeptical international community. Only 30 per cent of a United Nations food aid target for North Korea has been met so far. The United States and South Korea, the two biggest donors before sanctions, have said they won t resume aid until they are satisfied the military-led communist regime won t divert it for its own uses, and progress is made on disarmament talks.
South Korea also says the North is exaggerating the severity of its food crisis. Visiting scholars, tourists and charity workers have sent out conflicting views about it. That prompted the North Korean government to allow a reporter to visit, under close supervision, the country s rice bowl in South Hwanghae province in the southwest.
In one orphanage in Haeju, 28 children huddled together on the floor of a small clinic, singing We have nothing to envy an anthem to North Korea s long-standing policy of juche, or complete self-reliance. Measurements taken of each child s mid-upper arm with colour-coded plastic bracelets a standard test for malnutrition showed 12 of the 28 were in the orange or red danger zones, meaning they could die without proper treatment. In an orphanage in another town, malnourished children said to be eight years old looked no more than three or four. The only food for the 736 children in the orphanage was maize and a thin soup made of onion and radish leaves. Cooks said they had no oil, sugar or protein vital ingredients for adequate nutrition.
An estimated six million North Koreans need food aid 50 per cent more than in Somalia and a third of children are chronically malnourished or stunted, according to a recent report.
With its economy in a decades- old crisis, North Korea has relied on food aid since the mid-1990s. But critics say the government continues to spend what little hard currency it earns maintaining a million-strong army and developing nuclear weapons and missiles.
Last year s savage winter dramatically reduced production, and flooding this summer left fields buried in mud, homes destroyed, and water supplies contaminated. In Haeju, 40 per cent of the city s 276,000 people were still without water due to damage to the main system. They trek four kilometres into the mountains to lug water from fresh streams.
But it s difficult to determine how widespread the crisis is. Next April marks the 100th birthday of Eternal President Kim Il-sung, and skeptics accuse North Korea of hoarding food for the centennial celebrations.
And the government forbids commercial trading, insisting the state distribute food. It has a minimum standard for the daily food ration 573 grams of cereals per person per day. After the harsh winter it was reduced to 400 grams, then cut further to 150 grams in June. It has since been raised to 200 grams.