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Head of U.N. humanitarian aid paints dire scene in North Korea

North Korea, October 24, 2011

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Choe Sang-Hun

The New York Times
October, 2011

SEOUL — North Koreans, especially children, urgently need outside aid to fight “terrible levels of malnutrition,” the United Nations’ humanitarian chief said Monday, in an appeal that came amid criticism that both Washington and Seoul were withholding aid for political reasons...

....“It’s all wrapped in a political process,” said David Austin, the North Korea program director for the U.S. relief group Mercy Corps.

Mercy Corps and four other U.S.-based relief agencies operating in North Korea recently accused Washington of ignoring their repeated warnings and being “indecisive” over sending substantial food aid to North Korea.

“It’s an election year” was the answer a senior State Department official gave to Mr. Austin and other relief agency officials when asked about Washington’s indecision during a meeting early this month, Mr. Austin said.

Officially, Washington and Seoul say they do not link humanitarian aid to political issues. In Seoul, officials noted pockets of malnutrition in North Korea but doubted that there was a nation-wide food crisis of the kind that killed many thousands in the mid-1990s.

But Mr. Austin said his team has found those pockets “throughout the country” on recent trips to North Korea, adding that people there “are starving to death.”

“There are rising incidences of acute malnutrition where children are dying because they are eating alternative food,” like corn mixed with roots and leaves, he said. “They haven’t had enough food or drink dirty water from a flood, or for whatever reason, they got a cold and they are weak enough from their malnutrition that they can’t fight just a normal shock.”

To Mr. Austin, the most telling sign of hunger came when he interviewed North Koreans who said they spent all their household income for food.

“Every single person knew the exact date of when they last had protein,” he said. “People are emotionally fully engaged with their food and their nutrition. Their whole mind-set is about food.”