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Hunger gnaws at N. Korea's facade

A visit to the secretive nation's countryside reveals a listlessness in a people drained by chronic food shortages.

November 02, 2008|Barbara Demick | Demick is a Times staff writer.

Nampo, North Korea — Along the sides of the road, people comb through the grass looking for edible weeds. In the center of town, a boy about 9 years old wears a tattered army jacket hanging below his knees. He has no shoes.

Sprawled on the lawn outside a bathhouse, poorly dressed people lie on the grass, either with no better place to go or no energy to do so at 10 a.m. on a weekday.

Despite efforts to keep North Korea's extreme poverty out of view, a glance around the countryside shows a population in distress. At the root of the problem is a chronic food shortage, the result of inflation, strained relations with neighboring countries and flooding in previous years.

Aid agencies say the level of hunger is not at the point it was in the 1990s, when it was defined as a famine, although they have found a few cases of children suffering from kwashiorkor, the swollen belly syndrome associated with malnutrition. Mostly what they are seeing is a kind of collective listlessness -- the kind shown by the people on the streets of Nampo.

"Teachers report that children lack energy and are lagging in social and cognitive development," reported a group of five U.S. humanitarian agencies in a summer assessment of the food situation. "Workers are unable to put in full days and take longer to complete tasks -- which has implications for the success of the early and main harvests."

Hospitals complained to aid workers of rising infant mortality and declining birth weights. They also said they were seeing 20% to 40% more patients with digestive disorders caused largely by poor nutrition.

The U.N. World Food Program reached similar conclusions. In a recent survey of 375 households, more than 70% were found to be supplementing their diet with weeds and grasses foraged from the countryside. Such wild foods are difficult to digest, especially for children and the elderly. The survey also determined that most adults had started skipping lunch, reducing their diet to two meals a day.

These are some of the same signs that augured the mid-1990s famine, which killed as many as 2 million people, 10% of the population.

"The current situation hasn't reached the famine proportions that it did during the 1990s. Our hope and goal is to keep it from going over the precipice," said Nancy Lindborg, president of Mercy Corps, one of the U.S. aid organizations working in North Korea. "You have a number of factors that have conspired to create a really tough food situation."

In Pyongyang, the capital, residence in which is reserved for the most politically loyal North Koreans, plenty of food is available on sale. A grocery inside the Rakwon Department Store carries Froot Loops and frozen beef. At open-air markets, you can find mangoes, kiwis and pineapples

But the products are far too expensive for most North Koreans, whose official salaries are less than $1 a month -- 60 to 75 cents monthly for the workers surveyed by the World Food Program. And the farther you get from Pyongyang, the poorer are the people.

Nampo is 25 miles southwest of the capital, on the Yellow Sea. It used to be a thriving port city, but nowadays its harbor is used mostly for shipments of humanitarian aid. On a weekday morning, many people sit along the sidewalk watching the few cars pass by. They appear to be unemployed or homeless.

The shoeless child walked through the center of town across the street from the flashiest building in the city, a pink structure with a triangular roof that houses an exhibit of Kimjongilia, a hybrid breed of begonia named for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. A parking lot next to the main department store is carpeted a golden yellow from corn that has been laid out to dry.

Every available patch of land appears dedicated to the production of food. Irregular shaped plots encircled by highway exits, even slivers sloping down between houses and the road at 45-degree angles, are planted with vegetables.

Much of the population has been enlisted in producing food. On a Friday morning at rush hour, the sides of the road out of Pyongyang were lined with office workers marching out to the countryside to help with the harvest. Many were middle-aged women with pocketbooks and clothing that made them look as though they were off to a business meeting, except for the fact that some carried shovels.

The food shortage is not from a lack of effort so much as from a dearth of proper equipment and fertilizer, combined with the naturally harsh climate and terrain of the countryside. Much of the rice crop is lost because the collective farms are using threshing machines dating to the 1960s and '70s.

In the fields, there were only a few skinny oxen and almost no motorized vehicles. Trucks in the countryside had been retrofitted to burn wood instead of gasoline. People carried large sacks on their backs, walking along a path of rusted railroad tracks where no train could now travel. Guard posts were erected in the cornfields, evidently to prevent theft.

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