Sanctions blocking international aid to North Korea could trigger starvation on the scale of a 1990s famine that killed as many as 2 million people, Mercy Corps President Nancy Lindborg said Thursday.
Lindborg, who led a small Oregon delegation to Pyongyang last month, joined heads of other relief organizations asking the Bush administration to exempt humanitarian work from sanctions following North Korea's nuclear test. Other aid managers said that a food embargo, combined with effects of recent flooding and internal aid restrictions, could push another wave of desperate North Koreans into China.
"If there were to be a serious squeeze that shut down all the ways in which North Korea feeds its people right now, then there could be another catastrophic famine," Lindborg said. "Hungry people don't revolt, history shows. Hungry people just die."
Lindborg, who works in Washington, D.C., for Portland-based Mercy Corps, spoke Thursday as United Nations ambassadors haggled over draft U.N. sanctions. She said her organization and others were appealing to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson concerning threatened U.S. sanctions.
Mercy Corps is one of a handful of U.S. relief organizations active in North Korea, a nation of 23 million. The organization has sent about 71,000 apple trees and 100,000 root stocks to North Korea for orchards, as well as rainbow-trout eggs for a fish farm. Mercy Corps also provided food during the 1990s.
Lindborg and five Oregonians spent four days in North Korea in late September, checking on the projects and discussing further plans. She hopes to bring five North Korean field scientists to Oregon this summer.
Tensions actually seemed lower last month during the Oregon group's visit, said Sho Dozono, a member of the delegation who had visited North Korea twice before. Dozono, a Portland business leader, said he got more access to places such as Pyongyang's subway and an open market where people shopped for everything from vegetables to clothing. The capital was bustling, he said, with more cars than before.
But hunger is reportedly common in outlying areas off-limits to foreigners. The U.N. World Food Program is already cutting food distribution as donations dry up, and South Korea interrupted aid after earlier North Korean missile tests, said Joel Charny, vice president of Refugees International, a Washington, D.C., organization.
"You have a whole bunch of factors aligning," Charny said, "which would suggest that this is going to be a very tough winter."