North Korea Food Crisis

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins, and this is The World. North Korea was hit by severe floods this past summertime. Those floods impacted agricultural areas. They wiped out crops and worsened an already serious lack of food in the country. Five US-based non-governmental relief organizations were allowed to send observers to North Korea this month. They monitored delivery of aid to the flood-affected areas. But they also came away with concern about widespread malnutrition and starvation in North Korea. The group is now calling for an urgent humanitarian intervention. Matt Ellingson was part of that relief mission. He's Director of Program Development at Samaritan's Purse, which is an international Christian relief organization. What situation did you find in North Korea? What did you see, Matt?

Matt Ellingson: Well, we drove south out of Pyeongyang to north Huanghoe and south Huanghoe, and that is known as the rice bowl or the bread basket of North Korea. This is where a large percentage of the food is produced. We were able to visit cooperative farms; we spoke to farmers and individuals and normal people. And while the damage of the flood was what we expected, it was the nutritional levels of the children which were most shocking.

Lisa Mullins: How did you see that?

Matt Ellingson: Well, we went into the pediatric wards of hospitals at the county and provincial level and we saw children laying in a line on the floor with just hollow eyes and unresponsive...these children were very obviously not well.

Lisa Mullins: How long would the famine have to have taken place for children to be in that condition?

Matt Ellingson: The overall food situation in the DPRK is precarious, and so there has been a long period of time, many years, where not enough food has gotten to the people. And so what we saw was the evidence of the impact the floods had on an already weakened situation.

Lisa Mullins: You went into some of the villages as well and talked to other local officials and people who were also affected. Tell us about some of those places and people.

Matt Ellingson: We walked through small villages in all of the provinces that we visited, so if you can think of kind of a rolling hills of corn fields and rice paddies that had all been inundated by water. The corn was not producing crop, the rice was very poor-looking and was also not producing any fruit. We walked through a village where 50, 60% of the houses had collapsed. These houses are made of mud-brick, and the three different storms saturated the mud-brick and then a third storm came through and blew the buildings down. Many people were living in makeshift little huts that were covered in tarps that we had provided, they had meager amounts of food in their tents, and that's what we saw.

Lisa Mullins: So, they see you there, they know that you're from the outside world, presumably - especially in these rural villages people don't see a lot of foreigners. I know there was one place you went where you said there hadn't been any foreign presence for quite some time, like since the Korean War. How did they relate, or did they relate, to you?

Matt Ellingson: That's a really interesting question. On our delegation, half of us - there were six of us - and half of us were fluent in Korean. So we had the ability to speak directly to the people and they spoke directly back to us. You know, we would shake hands and say "Hi" and that whole thing, and then we would get to, "Tell me what happened in this most recent flooding," and they just told us the facts, you know, they had all their facts written down on paper and so forth: "We lost 18 oxen," "We lost 45 pigs," and "We need those pigs and we need those oxen to do all the tasks of life."

Lisa Mullins: You know, I wonder what you could tell some of these people though because you and the organizations you are working with have made great efforts to bring relief to the flooding victims and those victims of the famine. Then you have the United States saying this week it's not going to resume food aid to North Korea; that was suspended back in 2008, the reason being that the US is worried it's going to be diverted by North Korea and used for political purposes. You have brought food aid to North Korea in the past: what do you say to these people now about what you can do and what do you say on this end to members of Congress about U.S. government policy?

Matt Ellingson: Yeah, that's a HUGE question. Essentially, we have a humanitarian imperative: there are children who don't have enough food to live full lives. We care about those children and those children really need our help to survive. The swirling questions of the world still swirl but these children need food, and that's what I would say to them.

Lisa Mullins: Matt Ellingson is Director of Program Development at the Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse. He was in North Korea earlier this month. Thanks a lot, Matt.

Matt Ellingson: Thank you.