Today’s special: Grass

You see them everywhere - children wearing school uniforms and adults in ragged clothes or the dirty brown uniforms of the regime.

They wander about by the roadside and on the mountain slopes looking for something to eat. Grass, weeds, leaves, roots, bark and unripe, green berries - that is all they can offer their craving stomachs.

“We haven’t had a decent meal in 3 weks” several families in the Kaesong district in the southern part of North Korea tell us. “We were given 100 grams of rice each. It was some kind of aid programme.”

In the streets I see almost only middle-aged persons and children. Only very few elderly people go out of their houses. They are lying inside, weak, tired out and hungry and do not have energy to get up and go outside.

The few places in the country where there is still some rice left, people get a daily ration of 450 grams rice per day, which is considered the lower limit for survival according to the U.N. health organization. But in far more places the ration of rice is only 100 or 150 grams per day, and in many places, as is the case in the Kaesong district, there is no more rice - only when the aid comes!

The domestic animals have been eaten

As a matter of fact domestic animals such as dogs, cats, rabbits, hens and pigs almost do not exist any more in North Korea. They have all been killed and eaten. Only some oxen and goats are left. The oxen are used for the work in the fields, and the communist regime does not allow killing the goats.

The regime ordered the collective farms of which there are about 4000 in total to buy new- born kids, which would then be part of the country’s meat and milk supply. The goats can feed off the mountain slopes which are otherwise useless. “The idea is very good, but it is a long-term programme and does not help here and now” reports Ole Grønning from the Danish Red Cross who is stationed as head of the International Red Cross in North Korea.

Break-down of the health system

Ole Grønning has been travelling a lot in North Korea and has seen all sorts of things. However, he does get a shock very often when he discovers new problems. The North Koreans are ashamed of their situation and prefer to hide it from the rest of the world. And this applies to everybody, right from the top bosses of the party to the workers on the collective farms.

Recently, Ole Grønning discovered together with the International Red Cross that the hospital service does not function at all.

“Most of the beds are empty. Simply because the hospitals cannot afford food nor necessary medication for the fight against diarrhoea, lung infections, malnutrition, deficiency diseases, anaemia and tuberculosis”, says Ole Grønning.

All kinds of vaccinations have been suspended owing to the lack of medicine. The few patients staying in the hospitals suffer from malnutrition and undernourishment - especially the children are badly afflicted.

At least 24.000 dead

The number of children born prematurely has increased drastically during the past few months, and new-born babies weighing down to 400 grams are not unusual.

In several districts the children weigh 2-3 kilos less than what is considered normal and nor do they reach the heights which are considered normal for their age, but are 2 cm shorter that the normal average in proportion to their age.

The latest official figures from the authorities in North Korea are that up till now at least 24,000 people have died of starvation. According to Ole Grønning this figure is much higher and will continue to increase drastically until the rice crop has been gathered by the beginning of November.

Text and photos: Tommy Nøddebo Mortensgaard