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North Korea's worst crisis is for its starved citizens

North Korean children accompanied by their grandparents, rollerskate at Kim Il Sung stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 13, 2013.  (Jon Chol Jin/AP)

Cannibalism in the countryside, fun-houses in the capital.

To the outside world the North Korean crisis is about putting nukes on long range missiles. To North Koreans, who are most endangered by the regime, it's about putting food in the mouths of malnourished people.

At least 20,000 may have died of famine in 2012 in the agricultural North and South Hwanghae Provinces, according to a report last month by Asia Press International, which interviewed anonymous sources in the country's agricultural heartland.

They said that while produce was stripped from the farmers that grew it -- to feed people in the "gorgeous capital," Pyongyang, and free up funds for high rise development and entertainment complexes -- some desperate rural villagers were butchering bodies for food.

"It's so tragic that when attention falls on nuclear weapons, life and death issues inside North Korea fall by the wayside," says Randall Baran-Chong, who heads the advocacy group HanVoice in Toronto.

One example was last year's decadent spectacle when North Korea launched a rocket to commemorate the 100th birthday of founding father Kim Il Sung, at a time when the UN had reported that one-third of children in the country were malnourished.

Estimates of the launch's cost were around $800 million. But worse, "the U.S. had reached an aid agreement contingent on suspending the rocket launches. So they had to forego 240,000 tonnes of aid, which could have fed eight million people."

Condemning the latest nuclear test this week, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said "what makes such actions even more unconscionable is the fact that the North Korean people starve and are denied their basic human dignity while the Pyongyang regime squanders limited resources."

The death of former dictator Kim Jong-il failed to end the "irresponsible path of placing weapons before the well-being of people," Baird added.

Kim Jong-il's 28-year-old successor, Kim Jong-un, in fact, has not begun to reverse policies that echo the worst excesses of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and Chinese supremo Mao Zedong, who systematically starved millions of their people.

Following a drought and floods between January and May 2012, the Asia Press report said, officials pillaged the countryside for grain and vegetables to feed the capital and the malnourished army on which the regime depends. In their wake came horrific reports of mass burials of starvation victims, child murder and cannibalism, and trafficking in "human meat." The reports cannot be confirmed due to the secrecy and fear in North Korea.

Though the food situation may have eased in recent months, says Baran-Chong, "the public distribution system has essentially collapsed. In northern regions they are almost 100 per cent reliant on trade."

Ultimately, that may be good news for liberalization of the world's most rigid totalitarian system which seems incapable of reforming itself. The bad news? "Market operators have to get their goods from China, so they are smuggled over the border. If smugglers are caught, they're punished."

For more on North Korea's human rights crisis, see www.hrw.org.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights as a correspondent and bureau chief from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia.She has won both national and international awards, collaborated on two Emmy-winning films and is one of the few journalists to have a war requiem written to her work.






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