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North Korea, Normally Coping With Chronic Hunger, Faces Massive Food Shortage

March 25, 2011 at 6:52 PM EDT
A United Nations report released Friday said more than 6 million people in North Korea urgently need food aid and face chronic hunger. Margaret Warner speaks with Mercy Corps' David Austin, who recently led a delegation of aid workers to North Korea to observe the food crisis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, new fears of a food crisis in North Korea. A United Nations report today said more than six million people there urgently need food aid.

Before that information was released, Margaret Warner spoke with a humanitarian aid worker who had just returned from the reclusive communist nation.

MARGARET WARNER: North Korea most recently hit the headlines with its provocative attacks last year on targets in South Korea. And it continues to defy the world in pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

But early this year, Pyongyang quietly began asking for help to address a severe food shortage. The country lost a million people to famine in the 1990s, and neither the U.S. nor South Korea has sent food donations in two years.

This time, Pyongyang reached out to five private Western humanitarian groups. All five sent representatives last month to assess conditions in three central North Korean provinces: North and South Pyongan and Chagang.

For more on what they found, we are joined by David Austin, Mercy Corps‘ director of programs for North Korea. He led the delegation.

And welcome, Mr. Austin. Thanks for being with us.

DAVID AUSTIN, Mercy Corps: Thanks for having me, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us, first of all, what did the North Koreans say when they — in explaining why they wanted you to come?

DAVID AUSTIN: Well, they asked us to come because there is a food shortage, and it’s affecting really the most vulnerable population in their country.

And they cite a number of reasons for this. There was a lot of floods this past summer. And there was also a late — a late cold in the springtime last year, the flooding in the summer. And then also, this winter, they have had more than 60 days of below freezing, really bitter-freezing winter cold.

MARGARET WARNER: Did they explain that they have lost a lot of their crops?

DAVID AUSTIN: They believe they have lost anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of their winter crops, which is what they use to really feed the population from late spring through the fall, when they expect their cereal crops of corn and rice to come in, in the fall.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this is such a secretive country. What were you able to see?

DAVID AUSTIN: We were able to see everything we asked for.

So, we asked that we would be able to go into these provinces where we had operated previously. And we also asked that we could go to an additional province where we had not been able to go before.

They gave us both of that. And then we went to 17 counties. And in each county, we would arrive that day, and then we would say, this is what we want to see. We would go to hospitals, orphanages, T.B. rest homes. We would visit households and any institution or warehouse that we were interested in viewing.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, give us an example. What — when you look back on this trip, what really stands out that says to you they are really facing a serious situation?

DAVID AUSTIN: Well, we know that they’re typically in a chronic situation, where they can barely feed their own population. So, a big shock like losing half of their — their winter wheat or their — their barley crops, is going to affect their population.

And the thing that stands out in my mind, that moves this from a chronic to an acute situation, we were in a hospital and asked to go into a pediatric ward. And we saw a little girl. She was 3.5-years-old, and she weighed 7.2 kilos, which is about 16 pounds. And she was unresponsive while we were there. She was being treated intravenously with saltwater, which is all they had.

We asked if you have any formula, and they said no. We said do you have any kind of food to feed this child? And they said, well, we could — we take rice and we grind it up and make a little porridge to try to feed her. And, then, she is probably not going to make it.

MARGARET WARNER: Members of the military don’t seem to be undernourished. And visitors to Pyongyang, which is really where most Westerners who ever get there are pretty much confined, they say those people don’t like undernourished.

Did you observe the same thing? And what do the North Koreans say about that?

DAVID AUSTIN: Well, we don’t interact with the military in any — in any sense.

We’re out in the field. And we — we wanted to see just normal people. We went into their homes. I went into 19 different houses. I went into nine different hospitals. And it looks serious. And we’re seeing that everything in their culture right now out in these communities is geared around accessing food.

You can see that from morning until night. People are thinking and working towards getting food. They are starting to eat alternative food, which is a phrase that we’re not used to in the West.

MARGARET WARNER: What is alternative food?

DAVID AUSTIN: Alternative food is — is when you go out into the hills and you collect grasses and leaves, and you chop it up real fine, and you put it into your little ration of rice or corn to extend the meal.

And when children eat alternative food, their stomachs can’t get rid of it. And this is what this little girl had in the hospital, is she was dying from having eaten too much alternative food.

MARGARET WARNER: Now you have made a recommendation that emergency food aid be given to pregnant women, the elderly, the poor, children.

What is your proposal, that is, this consortium of groups, for making sure it isn’t diverted to the military, it isn’t diverted to the elites, or the black market, as many people say it has been in the past?

DAVID AUSTIN: Well, we’ve negotiated a protocol that the North Koreans have agreed to. They have said: We will comply with this. We will allow to you monitor.

And in 2008-2009, when we had a food program, we were able to monitor it effectively from the port, to the warehouses, to the distribution centers, to the households. And we could go in to any of those sites along that chain with a 24-hour notice, and we could then go in and explore anything in any of the 25 provinces — or 25 counties where we operated.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what kind of reaction or response have you gotten from, say, the Obama administration?

DAVID AUSTIN: It’s quiet right now. They’re talking about it. They’re engaging with us. And they’re listening.

MARGARET WARNER: And nothing else?

DAVID AUSTIN: Nothing else right now, no promises.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, David Austin of Mercy Corps, thank you so much.

DAVID AUSTIN: Thank you.