SEOUL — In recent years, North Korea's Kim Jong Il ordered his army to build chicken farms to fight the country's chronic food shortage and sell poultry abroad for hard currency. Just this month, North Korean-raised chickens were due to be exported for the first time -- to South Korea.
For that reason, the first reported outbreak of avian flu in North Korea could have a devastating effect on the secretive, impoverished country.
In a rare moment of candor Sunday, the regime in Pyongyang confirmed rumors in the South Korean media that it was battling an epidemic of the deadly virus. Its official news agency said the flu had broken out at "a few chicken farms." No humans had been infected, it said, but in an effort to control the disease, "hundreds of thousands of chickens have been burned."
South Korean officials believe that the fact North Korea felt compelled to make the announcement suggests that the situation is far worse than described.
"It is our judgment seeing North Korea reveal itself in this way that they are experiencing difficulty in taking the necessary prevention and quarantine measures and that it must be quite serious," Kim Chun Sik, director of inter-Korean exchanges for the Unification Ministry, said Wednesday.
Another sign of Pyongyang's concern is its decision to promptly accept an assessment team from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Hans Wagner, a senior official from the agency's Thailand office, flew in Tuesday and will be joined by two more officials this week.
The U.N. team is bringing diagnostic kits to determine whether North Korea's avian flu is the dreaded H5N1 strain, which has spread through Southeast Asia. That virus can be transmitted from birds to humans and is blamed for the deaths of 48 people since late 2003.
The seriousness of the outbreak is also evident from accounts by businesspeople and aid workers who have visited Pyongyang.
"When I went to the market, there was no poultry at all and not a single egg. To me, that signaled they are on the alert," said Kathi Zellweger of the Roman Catholic charity Caritas, recalling an experience of March 19.
There have been reports in the South Korean media that large numbers of troops have been deployed to carry out the slaughter and burial of the chickens and that up to 10 million birds may have been destroyed.
If an epidemic takes hold -- or has taken hold -- in North Korea, the implications could be grave, in part because of the country's faltering healthcare system. North Korea was so frightened by Asia's 2003 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, that it sealed its borders and suspended flights from Beijing. Now it is North Korea's neighbors that may face the risk of contagion.
Hospitals in North Korea are known to lack sanitary facilities, antibiotics and equipment considered basic in the West. Because of its authoritarian system, an aid official who works in North Korea said, the country could effectively quarantine infected areas, but hygiene conditions could sharpen the risks.
The World Health Organization advises people to cook fowl completely and wash their hands thoroughly after handling, "but we're talking about a country where there isn't even enough soap," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous.
Even if the flu is confined to the bird population, the economic consequences are likely to be more severe than in other Asian countries. North Korea's people suffer from a chronic lack of protein, and the nation's sparse economy generates few legal exports -- the U.S. accuses the regime of raising hard currency by selling arms, counterfeit currency and illicit drugs.
"Their loss defies comparison," said Lee Suk Doo, president of Porky Trading Korea, the Seoul-based firm that has suspended plans to import 2,000 tons of chicken from North Korea this year. The first shipment of poultry was scheduled to arrive at the South Korean port of Inchon today.
The deal had been in the works since 2000, when then-South Korean President Kim Dae Jung met with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang to set the stage for economic cooperation. Lee believes that North Korean chicken would sell well in the South because it is "almost 100% organic" -- raised without added hormones or antibiotics.
"As a matter of state policy, the North Koreans developed poultry farms to feed their own people," Lee said. "They were just about to start the export business with the sale to us when this happened."
The high esteem in which North Korea holds chicken farming can be seen in the words of Kim Jong Il himself. Inspecting a newly built farm in 2000, he proclaimed it among the "edifices of eternal value to pass a prosperous socialist homeland onto posterity," according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
In the last five years, the news agency has been replete with glowing accounts of Kim offering "on-the-spot guidance" at chicken, duck, goat, pig and catfish farms.