Last week, a collection of smuggled clips of daily life in North Korea was released by Australian media outlet ABC. The footage was only available for 24 hours, but other mirrors exist such as the one embedded below.
Shot over several months by an undercover North Korean journalist, the harrowing footage shows images of filthy, homeless and orphaned children begging for food and soldiers demanding bribes.
The footage also shows North Koreans labouring on a private railway track for the dictator’s son and heir near the capital Pyongyang.
Strolling up to the site supervisor, the man with the hidden camera asks what is going on.
"This rail line is a present from Kim Jong-il to comrade Kim Jong-un," he is told.
The well-fed Kim Jong-un could soon be ruling over a nation of starving, impoverished serfs.
The video shows young children caked in filth begging in markets, pleading for scraps from compatriots who have nothing to give.
"I am eight," says one boy. "My father died and my mother left me. I sleep outdoors."
In the footage, a party official is demanding a stallholder make a donation of rice to the army.
"My business is not good," complains the stallholder.
"Shut up," replies the official. "Don’t offer excuses."
It is clear that the all-powerful army – once quarantined from food shortages and famine – is starting to go hungry.
"Everybody is weak," says one young North Korean soldier. "Within my troop of 100 comrades, half of them are malnourished," he said.
The source of these images is AsiaPress’ Rimjin-gang magazine. The project employs citizens journalists in North Korea who receive hardware like cellphones or digital cameras and training on how to use them, and smuggle the images captured back across the border.
The situation is perpetually bleak, but an international debate over how to, or even whether to, support North Korea with humanitarian food aid rages on.
The first place to look for humanitarian aid should be the United Nations’ World Food Program. Joshua Stanton on his blog One Free Korea hosts an interview with Marcus Pryor, the spokesman for WFP Asia. It’s hard to disagree with Stanton and his suspicion of WFP’s monitoring rigour. For more perspective from a World Food Program monitor in the late 90s towards the end of the ‘Arduous March’, read Erich Weingarten’s story of his first aid monitoring trip in North Korea on 38 North. It’s well worth the read on exposing the dilemma facing inspectors who are unable to interact with anyone or anything the government doesn’t present them with.
The Christian Science Monitor echoes the sentiment from the US and South Korean leadership, which both agree that North Korea cannot adequately guarantee that food is going to the right places, and therefore should not receive said food aid. The South Korean government has also maintained its stance that it will not be providing its rival brother with aid.
China has been importing grain in greatly increased numbers in the past year, not as aid, but presumably at a greatly discounted rate. Chinese-DPRK relations are at a high right now, following a highly publicized meeting between Kim Jong-Il and Chinese President Hu Jintao, as well as the establishment of many new economic ventures between the neighbour countries.
The European Union has announced a 10 million Euro ($14.5 million USD) aid package as well. From the Associated Press:
"The purpose of this aid package is to save the lives of at least 650,000 people who could otherwise die from lack of food," Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said in a statement.
EU experts on a recent mission to the country determined that state-distributed rations, which provide food to two-thirds of North Koreans, have been cut by more than 60 percent, to about 400 calories, the EU said.
Even severely malnourished children in hospitals and nurseries are not getting any treatment and many citizens have grown so desperate that they are eating grass, the EU added.
A nice gesture, but the intention is for the aid to be “strictly monitored” by the existing unreliable methods employed by the WFP.
Can there ne any reasonable way to monitor the distribution of aid in North Korea? This is likely impossible with the current, long-standing regime, where anywhere and everywhere can be made to be off limits to foreign eyes. A destabilized North Korea is probably the first step required to see that the people most in need receive vital nutrition.