The 1997 Famine That Still Affects North Korea Today


I’m in the middle of the most secretive country
on earth and this hotel room is the only place that I can film freely. Within one hundred
yards of this room there are families slowly starving and I’m not allowed to report on
it. Although the government here has requested
international assistance it’s extremely difficult for aid workers to gain access here and for
journalists it’s impossible. Without access and without images, a mere trickle of aid
is coming in. You want to see what we can bring. We also
want to see what sort of relationship we can have but our primary objective is to help
the people in need so we don’t … This man holds the resources of one of the
aid agencies but to date he’s made nothing but a token contribution to North Korea. He’s negotiating an agreement with the government
but he’s suspicious about how aid is delivered here. You can’t direct where it goes nor who it
goes to. He knows there is a need but he’s not allowed to see it. … CARE will not bring, CARE can bring in
small projects if you want a bit of help here, a bit of help there then you can have that.
But that’s not really, you’re not using the benefits that CARE can provide in a major
way. When I met with CARE for the first time I
had very high expectations. Since then six months have passed already and there has been
very little yield. Simon Williamson knows that in the past six
months, people have been dying in the remote regions of North Korea. But his plan to launch
relief project there has been rejected by the government. No foreigners are allowed. Without access to the people in the most need,
he’s refusing to deliver aid to the places the government want him to, places that don’t
need emergency aid at all. What I want to mention is that your activity
is under our expectation, our first initial expectation … If you want to come in and help out, the North
Koreans aren’t letting you bring those resources in, in a way that you can be sure that the
people who need it, get it. So how do you address that, what do you say? The North Koreans
are saying, well, look, we’ve got our system, we ensure that everybody gets what they need
and you just give us the money or the food and we’ll take care of that, this is our country.
And this is their country but that’s not the way humanitarian aid works. If you walk down
the street and you see a starving child, that’s the child that you’re going to target with
your resources. There are no starving children in the capital
nor in the fertile rice bowl areas that surround it. But it’s to these regions that the government
is trying to direct all aid. Williamson message that no access to the remote
areas means no aid at all has had an impact. Today he’s been given a rare permit to travel
north out of the capital and his recommendations will be made at the end of this seven day
journey. I’ve been given permission to film his investigation.
I can’t film on the street or from the car. I can’t do interviews and we’ve been told
not to approach civilians. We’ve been given a minder and the man in the
background has been assigned to watch over him guarding the guard and taking down every
word that he utters. It’s a level of control which seems totally
normal to everyone around us. They’ve spent years and years developing this
idea of socialism and independence and the last thing they want to do is expose to themselves
and especially to foreigners that they’ve got problems. Yet they know they do and they do want the
help and it’s just a dilemma for them. As we travel north through the central provinces,
we stop as many kindergartens as possible. Children are the first to show signs of famine
and in place of a proper survey, these visits enable Williamson to gain an impression of
the region and devise a strategy for assistance. But discovering exactly what the needs are
is easier said than done. With that in mind, when he’s preparing the
list of the nurseries and kindergartens, I wonder if he could also identify which nurseries
and kindergartens need sanitation facilities. After your project is being under operation
we are going to have some cleaning around this area and I’ll show you … Well, if I’m going to do the project, I really
need to see the sanitation sites. I think later you can see. When? We’ve only got about ten minutes. After documents approved … I’m not going to … no, the documents come
after I see them. This argument about devising a sanitation
program without seeing the toilets seems petty. But to us it becomes a symbol of the aid impasse
in North Korea. Help is available but the problem is too embarrassing to show. But it’s the last chance I have to do this
project. No, it shouldn’t be the last chance … It is. … You will come several times if the project
begins here. The project won’t begin unless we have a chance
to see some of the problems. You understand what that means. Come on, convince them. After seeing toilet, I think you’ve got to
keep up. We’re in the county of Huichon, north of the
capital and heading up into the mountains. It’s an area rumoured to be in trouble but
it seems that we’re being shielded from it. Until we break the schedule and start visiting
nurseries at random. I work for CARE INTERNATIONAL, it’s a non-government
aid agency. So we’re looking at trying to assist, improve the nutritional status of
children in Huichon I’m sure you should be familiar with some of the work … There is not a lot of singing in this group.
Many of them no longer have the energy. Their stillness is chilling. If these children slide
into Category Three of malnutrition, they’ll lose all of their powers of movement, even
the power to eat. Among these children acute diarrhoea and intestinal
infections are now prevalent. And these are the healthiest kids in this
nursery. We’re told that up to twenty percent of the class have stayed home today probably
too sick to attend. You’ve got skin problems, these kids are stunted.
There’s a sort of lethargy amongst some of those kids. It’s not a situation where they
are dying instantly, they are deteriorating very steadily. So without some attention or without nutritional
support to these kids, you’ll see them move into Category Three and into a critical state
where they would need to go to hospital. As we discover over the next few days, the
kids that make it to hospital are a lucky few. There are simply not enough beds or medicines
to cope with the need. Usually … five or six times of diarrhoea
… We’re being told by the government that we
can’t film in hospitals. In a state which specialises in creating images of it’s own
perfection. They are concerned that sick and hungry children reflect badly upon them. Local officials are far more obliging. They
desperately need help and they give us access to get it. Because of the shortages the children haven’t
been able to get any proper food – any food that they can digest. What are they doing about that? What sort
of medicines do you have or what sort of … The aid organisation MSF has been able to
deliver medicines to this ward but the hospital has no food at all. The mothers have to supply
it and they’ve no more food now then they did when their children began to starve. We know that there are definitely people dying
and people who are in danger of dying – hundreds, thousands, but we don’t know, we’re not able
to assess that with any degree of accuracy but we know it’s happening. The proportion
of it … Why don’t you know? I think it’s, we’re not able to go to the
places randomly and do any objective assessment. They control their own information so tightly
within themselves. So to have somebody come in here and ask questions
and want to take pictures and tell the world what is going on so we can bring them assistance
is completely alien to them. When people come from outer areas, people
in the more remote parts of Dongsin how do they get access to … We’ve arrived in the village to Dongsin as
far north as we’re allowed to go. Aid groups are either discouraged or forbidden from working
in remote areas like this. The government wants to direct all resources
to wealthier regions of high production and presumably of high political value. The North Koreans want to target the more
resource intense areas so that they can produce a higher yield and then therefore, their argument
is distributed throughout the country. We don’t think their system is functioning
that well. If you’re not in the system you don’t get the food. As one fellow said, you
don’t work, you don’t eat. Well, that’s not our philosophy. If you starve
you get assistance if we can provide it. Where are we going now? We’re just going to visit one of the families
where some of the children live and are in some of the more severe conditions. It’s the first day that we’ve been given permission
to visit the families of our choice. Again thanks to a local official, more concerned
with getting help than the image of the state. This woman lives with her mother, her daughter
and her baby son. The men in the room have come with us. Her husband died just … did the husband
die before the baby was born? The baby is fifteen months old, he looks no
more than half that age and it’s unlikely he’ll survive the coming winter. She understands and … your child looks like
it might be marasmic. The marasmic condition of the child looks fairly serious. What can
they tell us about their food situation. When there was some food we could maintain
our family. Then our breadwinner died in the floods. I’m left alone with the child. And
now there is no food distributed at all. Her other child is fourteen years old. She has no specific disease – but often she
can’t move at all for days. She’s like any other malnourished person. She can’t digest
her food anymore – it passes straight through her. She is so weak. This family has been living on about 100 grams
of food per day. Maybe a cup full of rice each. We are told that everyone receives the
same ration but clearly those that are working have much more. This is no socialist famine, none of their
neighbours are suffering like they are. It seems that only the non-productive are left
to starve. After the troubles began, we all got sick.
Now we just manage to survive each day. The
world food program claims that it’s delivering
to this area through the government distribution system but it has no staff here to insure
that families like this get what they need. The government can’t keep these people alive
and neither CARE nor any other agency are allowed to deliver food to them directly.
They can’t even beg. Their only option is to sit and wait for a starvation ration which
often doesn’t come at all. There’s just nothing there. This is the harvest that was to save Dongsin
but floods and now drought have taken their toll. If this is your best crop, it looks, what
we’re seeing at the moment is less than fifty percent. Yeah, the rest of the county must
be worse. Really the corn harvest has been totally devastated. From a distance it looks as healthy as any
other crop. But like everything else here you need to peel back the covers to see it. A town that looks okay on the surface, until
you start knocking on the doors, a child that you think is just thin until you feel their
arms through their clothes. When did you receive your last ration? The last ration was about ten days ago. This man broke his back last year. He can
no longer work and now his daughter is starting to starve. And the families that we’ve seen with the
malnourished children and the ones that have lost their homes or their relatives or their
husband has died or their situation is in some way more vulnerable, they are the ones
that are suffering most. And so that’s why you are seeing pockets of it. You’re not seeing
starvation everywhere. There will be no surplus to keep people like
this alive through the winter. And it’s likely that the situation is even worse further up
the mountains where there is less arable land. They want to focus whatever resources they
can get, sort of in an arc around Pyongyang. It would appear as if they have decided to
let the more remote areas go. If they’ve got a problem they think they can
control it by losing that part of their country, not losing it but letting that part go and
focusing on the area that they’ve got control over. That’s why we suspect that things are much
worse in the more remote areas but they won’t let us up there. They won’t let us up there maybe because they
don’t want to see how bad it is and if we see how bad it is that’s where we’ll want
to work or because they really want us to keep away from that and focus on the rice
bowl areas. The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il
is about to be appointed General Secretary of the Party. In the face of natural disasters, the dear
leader King Jong Il is committed to maintaining the world’s last totally socialist system.
But it’s not just droughts and floods that have created the crisis here. North Korea has never had enough land to support
an agrarian communist model and since the collapse of its only patron, the Soviet Union,
it’s had no other economic inputs to make up the difference. It’s a nation of edifice, spanned by huge
highways but virtually no cars. Grand factories with nothing to make and nothing to sell. A capital city designed to look like a commercial
hub but with no commerce at all. I’m confident that if we can sit down here
and identify the need of food security for nurseries and kindergartens, that if we’re
working together on this, we can probably do two or three hundred nurseries and kindergartens,
maybe even more. But we’re starting with a small number to
build confidence for you. I mean, it’s a learning, as you said, this is the first time that the
DPRK has asked for international assistance but it’s also the first time that international
assistance has come to the DPRK … Williamson is having his final meeting with
the deputy chairman of the government’s relief committee. He’s restating his position that
there will be no un-monitored national donations. That he will provide assistance for the areas
he has seen. I’ve been to Dongsin and to Huichon and it’s
clear that there is great need and CARE will respond to that need immediately. He’ll supply green houses and winter clothing
directly to the kindergartens. If it’s successful he’ll expand the program. But it’s not how
the government wants to receive aid nor where it wants it to go. It’s been generally agreed that we focus on
two provinces connected and probably in three or four counties, in those two provinces to
begin with and that’s being Dongsin, Huichon Dongsin and Huichon are not farming areas. The western coast is where we want to do farming. The west is the major area. You can help us focus on farming in this area
and then we’ll have much more yield – more than other provinces including Dongsin and
Huichon. Of course they do some basic farming in the
northern areas of our country, but their output is very limited. That’s why we want to focus
on the west and then we will provide for the northern areas. In a more open society the government’s logic
might be believable. It’s a position which is costing them and more importantly people
who are starving a fortune in potential aid. … Maybe we can get much more than that … Williamson gets his program for the kids of
Huichon and Dongsin but for thousands of others starving, unknown and unseen, there is no
one coming to help. … children will die because of the severe
winter and we definitely don’t want that to happen if we can avoid it.