April 30, 1998
PHIL PONCE: For the first time in months a U.N. food agency has returned from North Korea with pictures of children who appear better nourished and more energetic. These images, shot by World Food Program camera crews earlier this month, are a dramatic contrast to videos taken last summer showing emaciated, malnourished children.
The progress, according to the U.N. agency, stems from months of food aid targeted specifically at children under age six. But on her recent visit the executive director of the World Food Program, Catherine Bertini, still found some children who were not receiving adequate food. And the situation in North Korea, according to the agency, continues to be grave.
Many people are still said to be foraging for food, eating roots, leaves, and bark, as shown in this video taken last year. Access for humanitarian groups has been limited by the North Korean government. The World Food Programs says that has kept them from gathering information about how serious the food shortage continues to be. Estimates of the number of deaths due to the famine vary widely from 1 million to 3 million over the past three years.
Even the lower figure, though, puts the North Korean crisis on a part with the Ethiopian famine of 1984 and the famine in Somalia of 1992. In visits to hospitals, which have food but few antibiotics and limited medical equipment, the food program found evidence of an increase in digestive disorders. And they found that elderly people were suffering from malnutrition. North Korea's famine stems from several causes: mismanagement of agricultural policy by North Korea's Communist government and the end of aid from the former Soviet Union, coupled with floods, a drought, and a typhoon.
The result has been poor harvests and widening food shortages. Food harvested last year has already run out, and daily food rations have been cut to about 10 ounces of grain, less than an adult needs to survive. This country of 24 million, off limits to most foreigners for a decade, has begun to open its doors, if only to receive food aid from abroad.
Last year, it received nearly 200,000 tons of food from the United States out of a total of nearly 1 million tons from the international community. More than half of that came through the World Food Program. North Korea's desperate need for food has also prompted it to enter into peace negotiations with South Korea, the United States, and China, though little progress has been made so far. The World Food Program team visited four regions in the southern part of the country. Executive Director Bertini is in Washington this week briefing reporters and policymakers about her trip.
PHIL PONCE: For more on North Korea we go to Catherine Bertini, whom we just saw in our taped setup, and also Andrew Natsios, who is vice president of World Vision, an international relief agency. His agency is among those providing aid to North Korea, where he visited last year. He was also in charge of international disaster relief during the Bush administration. And welcome to you both. Ms. Bertini, give us more of an idea of exactly what you saw as far as the changes were concerned between the time you last were there and this year.
CATHERINE BERTINI, World Food Program: Well, we did see the progress about feeding young children and particularly those six and under because mothers and fathers are working. They put their children in these nurseries and kindergartens, and they have kitchens. So when we send food there, their children are able to eat hot food each day. It's increased by three times the amount of children who are actually attending nurseries and kindergartens. And we saw children--healthy children--and many more children than we did a year ago.
But we also saw children with extended bellies, children with sores because they don't have enough of the proper vitamins and nutrition, children who had orange hair, another indication of malnutrition. So that certainly still exists. But the good news is that there definitely was progress in feeding these young children. The bad news is that there are many other people who don't have enough food, especially pregnant women, so the babies who are born are born at lower birth rates, and there's a higher mortality rate. And we think the elderly are particularly at risk as well.
PHIL PONCE: Now, did you go back to some of the same villages you visited, or some of the same schools or hospitals?
CATHERINE BERTINI: We did. We went to two--a nursery and a kindergarten that we had visited the last time--and the last time there was about 20 percent enrollment--or attendance, rather, in these two places. This time was over 90 percent of those expected who were actually there. The food aid is the reason why this makes a difference, and our monitors, our international staff members who visit regularly, also say this continues not only in those schools but other places as well.
PHIL PONCE: Give us an idea of how it is someone goes about getting food. I mean, are there stores? Do you just get it through the government? How does one get food if there is food to be gotten?
CATHERINE BERTINI: It's a socialist country, and each family essentially goes once a month to receive a food distribution, and it's done on a per person basis. And because that's the major food supply for individuals and because there's so much less food available in that system, that is why over the years and months now people have had less and less food. So they supplement it. They supplement it with roots, with grass, with bark, and in addition to not having enough food, people are having digestive problems, intestinal problems, and, of course, they're much more susceptible to disease as well.
PHIL PONCE: Now, I read that there are even reports of factories that produce cakes that are made out of roots and leaves. Is that so?
CATHERINE BERTINI: Yes. Some of our staff have seen factories which have been refitted to make little cakes. If they're brown cakes, they're made out of bark, and if they're green cakes, they're made out of leaves. These have no nutritional value, but they fill people's stomachs.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Natsios, you heard the reports that there is some improvement. Are you the least bit heartened by that?
ANDREW NATSIOS, World Vision: I am, and the international community sent in 800,000 tons of food last year. That has had an effect in some areas. The problem is it was nowhere near enough, and there is every indication from thousands of refugees who crossed the border into China that there is a famine going on, that a huge number of people have died the last two and a half years, and that the famine continues because there isn't enough food getting into the country.
PHIL PONCE: How reliable are those reports from refugees, and is that the most reliable information that exists?
ANDREW NATSIOS: There are three ways to get information about a famine. One is to look at what we call famine indicators. Catherine just mentioned some of them, people eating wild famine foods, people consuming all their animals.
WFP reports, for example, that 70 percent of the farm animals have been eaten, or domestic animals. People foraging for food in the countryside; people selling their household goods, they sell their household goods, even glass in their windows, in order to get cash to go out on the black market, the private markets, and buy food. The second way you tell is by nutritional surveys. We have not been able to do--however much pressure we put the North Koreans under--they will not let us do a scientifically acceptable, nutritional survey of conditions, which would be absolute proof of a famine.
PHIL PONCE: That makes you rely on reports from refugees at the Chinese border.
ANDREW NATSIOS: Which is the way human rights groups for 30 years have been collecting data on atrocities and human rights abuses. We've used the same techniques, and it's not just one organization. We did a little survey last summer, which showed very high mortality rates, 15 percent over a six month period. Jaspar Becker, the great famine writer and a reporter has been up to the border five times.
He has similar reports. And the most comprehensive survey has been done by a Buddhist monk, Punyung, who's interviewed through his academics in China 770 refugees who've crossed the border, and their reports are very alarming, that there is very high mortality rates. A large number of people have died. I think a million people is a very conservative number. I think it's much higher than that, frankly.
PHIL PONCE: That Buddhist report that you're talking about claims that this could be or is the worst famine perhaps in human history. Is that--
ANDREW NATSIOS: No, no, that's an exaggeration.
PHIL PONCE: Is that an exaggeration?
ANDREW NATSIOS: Yes. In terms of numbers the worst famine in human history is the Chinese famine--1958 to '62--that took 30 million people. There are only 23 million people in North Korea.
PHIL PONCE: Relative to the population.
ANDREW NATSIOS: Relative to the population it's one of the worst famines of this century I think when the final record comes out. And it may be years before we can do the kind of scientific analyses all of us want but we can't do.
PHIL PONCE: Ms. Bertini, how much food does North Korea need, and what's the likelihood that it's going to get that?
CATHERINE BERTINI: Well, this year, the estimate is that the country needs at least one million tons of food. So far, about 40 percent of that has been raised. There are countries who give bilaterally directly to the government, or countries who give through the U.N.'s food aid agency, the World Food Program, and NGO's, like World Vision and others, who have contributed to--
PHIL PONCE: Non-government organizations.
CATHERINE BERTINI: Non-governmental organizations, right. So about 40 percent is raised, but 60 percent is necessary, and is absolutely critical. Now when we were there, the government agreed that they would allow us to conduct a random sample nutritional survey, and so we are proceeding with that we hope.
We are proceeding with the plans, and we hope that this will be allowed to make the point that Andrew did. If we could have this base line, it will help us better be able to assess the problems and to then be able to say what good the food aid did do. However, whether or not we get that survey, there are people who are dying of food, and we must get more food into the country in order to try to avoid that.
PHIL PONCE: So what's the likelihood of getting more food, getting the extra amount that is needed?
CATHERINE BERTINI: Well, last year, as Andrew said, over 800,000 tons--900,000 tons was raised at least. And so we're hoping to go over that and meet the 1 million ton figure. But so far a lot of the donor support has been slow in coming, and so we are very anxious that other countries will join in the already generous contribution the U.S. and South Korea have made.
PHIL PONCE: Now, as I understand it, one of the reasons some potential donor countries may be reluctant or hesitant is because of concerns that the food isn't going to the right place, that it's the government officials, it's the military, it's members of the Communist Party who are getting priority. How does one know if food is going to the people who really, really need it?
ANDREW NATSIOS: Well, there have been NGO monitors that work with WP from World Vision from CARE, from Catholic relief services, and Mercy Corps, and from Amigos, internationalities that are working to monitor the U.S. government's food that's been sent, and we've sent our private monitors in for private donations we've sent in. I don't think there are large diversions going on. I think the problem is not diversions. It's not enough food, particularly into the remote mountainous areas in the Eastern part of the country.
PHIL PONCE: Do you agree with that, that it's the amount of food that's at issue, not who's getting first dibs on it, so to speak?
CATHERINE BERTINI: Oh, I agree. But there's two ways that people can give food, or governments give food, multilateral, bilateral. If they give through WFP through the NGO's that monitor, then it's going to target a group, so it's going to those children, it's going to hospitals. It's going to other institutions. It's going in exchange for work projects to help improve agricultural production. If they give bilaterally, like China does, for instance, then it goes to the government.
PHIL PONCE: Which only gives it directly to North Korean--
CATHERINE BERTINI: To the government.
PHIL PONCE: And any strings attached there?
CATHERINE BERTINI: No, none. And that's important too because otherwise the three of us, if we lived in North Korea, we wouldn't have access to food unless we were working in exchange for food, assuming that we're not pregnant and we're not five. So it's important that the general distribution system works also. But since we can't monitor that system, we direct our food to targeted groups.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Natsios.
ANDREW NATSIOS: I might add that the most important concern on the Hill is that the military is not getting this. The food coming from China can go to the military because the Chinese don't want unrest in North Korea. So the concern that this is being diverted by the military is not the central issue.
The central issue here over the short-term is a volume of food, and over the long term we need to get in some--improved varieties of seed and some agricultural changes, modernization, that will allow them to grow their own food, which they want to do. They're willing to talk now about changes in the agricultural system. They've agreed to some changes. But the West needs now the donor countries to get in some funding to help with an agricultural program that will allow them to grow their own food. If they don't do that, then we'll be back every year.
PHIL PONCE: Ms. Bertini, Mr. Natsios, thank you both for being with us.