Friday, September 12, 2008

The misery that is North Korea

On a recent trip to the North Korean capital, aid worker James Lim saw a group of children cleaning the streets. But when they got nearer, he noticed that three of the male cleaners had facial hair.

These were not children at all. They were adults stunted by malnutrition. Their heads came only as high as his chest. One of them said he was 30 years old. Another cleaner, a woman who said she was 19, was about the size of an average second-grader. Some appeared to be mentally, as well as physically, delayed.

Mr. Lim, a Korean-Canadian Christian who is a veteran of aid work in dirt-poor Afghanistan, says he has never experienced anything quite like the misery of North Korea, which he has visited seven times over two years. Fellow aid workers have seen bodies floating in the rivers - victims, it's thought, of a renewed food shortage. Whole mountainsides are said to have been turned into mass graves. The average North Korean seven-year-old is estimated to be nine kilograms lighter and 20 centimetres shorter than her southern sister.

The United Nations says the food crisis is the worst since the 1990s, when a famine killed as many as two million North Koreans. People are once again seen foraging for edible roots, grasses and other "wild foods." Those who flee across the border into China, as hundreds of thousands have done, are forcibly repatriated to North Korea to face beating, imprisonment and even execution. Human-rights groups say that women who become pregnant during such absences are often subjected to forced abortions.

[Globe and Mail]

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