Tragedy or stagecraft: N. Korea’s food crisis
Tim Large, editor of Thomson Reuters Foundation’s AlertNet humanitarian news service, gives the back story to his special report Crisis grips North Korean rice bowl <http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/10/07/us-korea-north-food-idUSTRE7956DU20111007> . Any opinions expressed are his own.
Malnourished children presented at a clinic in North Korea during a guided tour of a disaster-hit province. (Reuters/Tim Large)
Could a malnourished eight-year-old really look like a three-year-old? Were the 28 orphans in the primary school clinic really so stunted by years of hunger that they had the bodies of toddlers, as the authorities claimed?
Or had they been assembled here for our benefit, infant imposters wheeled in to add poignancy to North Korea’s appeal for food aid?
Western nutrition experts who have worked in the country for years assured me that such extreme stunting was absolutely the norm.
“You see seven-year-olds who like they’re two,” said one. “You see 13 years-olds who look like they’re seven.”
In any other country, it never would have occurred to me to question the word of doctors as we visited room after room of children with gaunt faces, emaciated limbs and weeping skin infections. But this was North Korea, the most closed and secretive society on earth.
And although government authorities gave us unprecedented access to hospitals, schools, orphanages and collective farms, our journey into North Korea’s bread basket was tightly controlled. At times it felt stage-managed.
Was it paranoia to wonder if what we were seeing was sometimes stagecraft?
Our trip marked the first time a major Western news organisation had been allowed to document hunger and suffering in rural North Korea, where the Wood Food Programme estimates 6 million people need food assistance and a third of children are malnourished or stunted.
From the start, there were strings attached.
Back in July, Thomson Reuters Foundation, which runs the AlertNet <http://www.trust.org/alertnet> global humanitarian news service, received an email from a senior official at North Korea’s Economy Trade and Information Center, part of the foreign trade ministry. It was an appeal for food aid <http://www.trust.org/alertnet/news/north-korea-asks-alertnet-to-help-mobilise-food-aid> to AlertNet’s network of about 500 international relief organisations, as well as a plea for a donation from the Foundation.
We wrote back, declining to give a donation but saying we’d be happy to come and report on the hunger crisis. The official answered that we could only do that if we brought an aid agency willing to donate food or money.
We asked around and learned that Medecins Sans Frontieres was keen to explore the possibility of working in North Korea again. The international medical charity had pulled out in the late 1990s following a disagreement over the monitoring of aid. Of course, there could be no relief programme without a proper needs assessment, they said — a message we relayed to the North Korean authorities.
That’s how we found ourselves on a ground-breaking – if at times surreal – reporting trip to the North Korean countryside.
The authorities set the itinerary. They made the rules. No taking pictures through the minibus window as we drove. No photographing portraits of North Korea’s “Great Leaders”, which festooned walls and billboards everywhere we went. No visiting informal markets, which many people rely on as the country’s public food distribution system crumbles
Journalists are used to relying on “fixers” to help them get interviews, provide translations and explain the lay of the land. But in this case, our fixers were also our government “guides”, “minders” and “controllers”.
Everywhere we went, ordinary people ran for cover when they saw our cameras and notebooks. Nobody in the street made eye contact. Reuters photographer Damir Sagolj gives a personal view of what it was like to work under these conditions in his blog, Eyes from behind the mirror <http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/10/07/idUS19142664920111007> .
When we interviewed farmers, doctors and flood survivors, we were inevitably surrounded by a gaggle of officials who took notes on everything asked and everything said. Other officials seemed to take notes on the note-takers.
Stunted North Korean child stands with a shovel in shrivelled corn field in a disaster-hit part of the country (REUTERS/Tim Large)
To be fair to our hosts, they did try to accommodate many of our requests, showing a surprising degree of flexibility in a country where everything has to be approved in advance by officials higher up the chain.
We wanted to film farmers beginning the all-important rice harvest. After much to-ing and fro-ing, we were allowed to train our cameras on men, women and children sowing late crops in an already-harvested field. Could it be that our minders didn’t want the world to see images of lush-looking paddies full
A good many interviewees were openly coached. I asked one doctor about cases of malnutrition in his clinic. He said they’d stood at about 3 percent of admissions all year. A senior official took him aside and then his answer changed. “I would like to say that since the floods, cases of malnutrition have gone up 8 percent.”
Yes, it was all about the floods. The narrative presented to us with solemn repetition was a story of a proud but disaster-prone country forced to reach out for aid after floods compounded catastrophic damage to crops caused by a savage winter.
To be sure, we saw plenty of evidence of devastation caused by the heaviest summer rains in years, two typhoons and successive inundations: broken bridges, crumpled houses, ruined maize crops.
But the floods were only the latest natural shock in a saga of chronic food shortages that are as much political as they are rooted in natural disasters.
Experts say North Korea’s hunger crisis has its roots in years of farm mismanagement as well as slumping aid and trade amid the fallout of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes. Fears that aid could be diverted to feed North Korea’s million-strong army have also made donors wary. Meanwhile, a botched currency devaluation and rising global commodities prices have slashed commercial food imports.
Skeptics say Pyongyang may be stockpiling food to give out at next year’s 100th birthday celebrations of “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung. Others say North Korea may be hoarding food ahead of a possible underground nuclear test, which would likely provoke another round of sanctions.
None of which negates the very real and upsetting hunger we saw.
Looking over the dozens of images we took of sick and malnourished children, I felt a twinge of guilt for even doubting the doctors and nurses who were evidently doing their best with almost no medicines and little food in the larder.
Tragic to say, many of the kids we saw will die. There is simply no treatment for them.