Three years of famine in North Korea has killed up to 2 million people, U.S. congressional aides said Wednesday, describing children with stick-thin bodies and people making noodles from weeds, grasses and cornstalks.
The deaths most likely were from famine-related illnesses, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and diarrhea, rather than starvation itself, said Mark Kirk, one of the bipartisan delegation's four members.The group brought back video footage from the secretive communist country that showed sickly, emaciated children.
One child too weak to sit up had to be propped up in the corner in an orphanage. Older children filmed during the delegation's weeklong visit appeared severely stunted by malnutrition.
To survive, North Koreans have been eating weeds, grasses and corn stalks that are mashed into powder and sometimes mixed with flour to make noodles or cakes.
"The food shortage continues," Kirk said. "They are out of food. That's clear."
During the past three years, the famine has killed an estimated 300,000 to 800,000 people annually, with the number of deaths peaking in 1997, Kirk said. He said the figures came from U.S. government sources, refugees and North Korean exiles.
"Two million would be the highest possible estimate," Kirk said.
Last September, the Christian relief group World Vision also said that 1 million to 2 million North Koreans may have died in "a full-scale famine."
The food shortages were precipitated by two years of flooding followed by a drought last year that pushed the country's inefficient collective farming system to the brink of collapse. The famine has left North Korea's 23 million people largely dependent on foreign aid.
Foreign food aid is clearly saving lives, and the international community is feeding nearly every child under the age of seven, the delegation said.
The United States - which fought North Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War and remains a staunch supporter of capitalist South Korea - is North Korea's largest donor, contributing 220,000 tons of food aid.
In an apparent bid for more U.S. aid, North Korean officials told the delegation they would stop exporting missiles if compensated for lost earnings. House International Relations Committee staff member Peter Brookes said they mentioned a figure of $500 million a year. Kirk said the offer came from Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, who also heads North Korea's delegation in four-way talks with China, the United States and South Korea.
This year's crops look better than last year's, but North Korea still will lack food after the harvest, the delegation said. The government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il also has not implemented any significant reforms to reverse the country's economic decline, it added.