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North Koreans Struggle Against Famine, Drought and Disease - 2003-03-13


The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, has attracted renewed media attention with its recent provocative actions. While demonstrating its military prowess, North Korea is struggling with one of the worst humanitarian crises on record. Persistent shortages of food, clean water and energy have resulted in dire poverty, famine and epidemics of deadly diseases.

"Mother Party Protecting Me" is a song by popular North Korean singer Li Gyong Suk. The party, of course, is the Communist Party, and while it may have protected the popular singer, it seems to have neglected most of the ordinary North Koreans.

According to various sources, hundreds of thousands have died in the last decade as a result of famine. Video footage and photographs smuggled from the secretive country show emaciated children, sometimes severely stunted by malnutrition. There have been reports of people mixing weeds, grasses and mashed corn stalks into flour to make noodles or cakes.

The shortage of food, aggravated by recent floods and droughts, a lack of clean drinking water and shortage of energy for heating have undermined people's resistance to disease.

"Tuberculosis, according to the North Koreans, is their number one, number two and number three health hazard," says Stephen Linton, chairman of the Eugene Bell Foundation, a U.S. relief organization providing food and medical aid to North Korea.

He says there may be one million people suffering from tuberculosis in the country of about 22 million. Malaria, eradicated in 1950, reappeared in 1998 with 100,000 cases reported in 1999 and 95,000 in the year 2000. The lack of clean drinking water is a frequent cause of diarrhea and other water-borne diseases.

The situation has worsened in the past few decades when North Korea's economy began to deteriorate and with it the country's health care system. Stephen Linton says poverty has undermined people's natural resistance to disease.

"If you live in a crowded situation, poor ventilation, cold weather perhaps to compromise your immune system further, poor nutrition; all of these factors make tuberculosis easy to spread and easy to catch," he says.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is one of the last bastions of communism. Since 1948, it has been under the rule of communist dictators Kim Il-Song and his son Kim Jong-Il. The father was able to use colonial assets to industrialize the country. Initially, North Korea did better than many other communist regimes, but the growth could not be sustained because North Korea has been isolated from the world market.

"Things started to unravel in the early 1970's," says Michael Robinson, a professor of contemporary Korean history at Indiana University. "The North Koreans were able to establish this relatively simple technology in reprocessing and in certain bulk-chemical production, a certain amount of what we would look at now as basic manufactures and machine tools. But eventually, they outran their own technology. That is, they could not continue to re-invest within the socialist system. A lot of the trade was done with barter."

Michael Robinson says until the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, North Korea swapped its products with other communist countries, primarily China and the Soviet Union.

"And the Soviet Union, as it ran into its own economic problems, started to squeeze off the goodies that it could give North Korea,” he says. “ So by the early 1980's, North Korea's economy was in a very slow-growth mode, and they had very few ways to earn foreign exchange. They were not trading on the world market."

For a while, China and the Soviet Union were able to help North Korea with oil supplies, but that had to be curbed, too. Professor Robinson says agriculture, which has never been strong in the mountainous country, followed a similar pattern. After the initial gains due to massive fertilization, production started to decline.

"In the agricultural sphere they did not continue to work to revitalize the soil. They basically took the gains early, but didn't do anything to extend agricultural production," he says.

When Kim Il-Song died in 1994 after 46 years in power, leadership passed to his son Kim Jong-Il. It was the first time in history that control of a communist country was inherited. Charles Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University, in New York, says the succession was possible due to years of massive indoctrination in which even popular culture played a part.

"A lot of the performing arts are revolutionary operas and plays about the anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle and most, if not all, such productions have a very forceful political message of resisting the imperialists and supporting the regime and so forth,” he says.

Professor Armstrong says current leader Kim Jong-Il has taken an active part in developing North Korean popular culture, especially movies. In 1978, he ordered the kidnapping of a South Korean film making couple and forced them to help him build up North Korea's film industry. He has also helped create popular music bands as part of his propaganda.

As most totalitarian rulers, and like his father before him, Kim Jong-Il has kept his country in isolation. The flow of people, goods and information across the border has been strictly controlled. Professor Armstrong says travel even within the country is discouraged and public transportation is almost non-existent.

"Information is highly restricted. There is virtually no access to foreign news of any kind, at least not officially, in North Korea,” the professor says. “Even foreigners who live in North Korea cannot see foreign television, newspapers, magazines and so forth. And, of course, the ordinary people do not have access to this at all."

Official permission has to be obtained to live in the capital of Pyongyang, a place reserved for the communist elite and the military. North Korea maintains one of the world's largest standing armies, about one million strong.

"The army is very powerful. In fact, in some ways you can say North Korea is a military state,” Professor Armstrong says. “The military really has preeminent power in the country over the civilian government, and that has increasingly become the case in the last 10 years or so.”

Charles Armstrong says Kim Jong-Il is usually presented in his military role as marshal of the army and chairman of the national defense commission. He needs the army to suppress any dissent quickly as well as to keep the country sealed off from the rest of the world.

For more than half a century, North Korean leaders have promoted the ideology of "Juche," or self-sufficiency, in which there is no place for global markets, personal freedoms and free flow of ideas. Observers says after a decade of humanitarian crisis, Koreans may finally be ready to abandon that ideology. When they do, North Korean pop musicians may turn to lyrics of a more personal nature. For now, they are still listening to songs such as this one glorifying a soldier's life.

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