Mercy Corps operations director urges prompt action to ease North Korean food crisis.
Without some kind of immediate intervention, the food crisis that is currently facing people in North Korea may soon be as dire as that being experienced in the Horn of Africa, says David Austin, operations director of Mercy Corps, a global aid organization that serves under-developed regions. Mercy Corps has been involved with assisting North Korea for the past 12 years, but Austin has never seen the situation there as dire as it is now.
Austin was at UCLA on Friday, raising awareness and appealing for people to mobilize around this issue. His talk was organized by UCLA’s Center for Korean Studies.
He says that in 2008, the U.S government said it would provide 500,000 tons of food to North Korea because of shortages. The World Food Program would distribute 400,000 tons and a group of five NGOs, including Mercy Corps, would be tasked with delivering the remaining 100,000 tons. That program ended suddenly in 2009, and the food situation has been deteriorating rapidly over the past two years.
In late January 2011, North Korean diplomats in New York officially asked the U.S. government to restart the program.
Citing its uncertainty regarding actual need for food relief, the U.S. State Department requested that the NGO group go to North Korea to assess the situation and report back their findings.
The team, led by Austin, surveyed 17 counties and three provinces, making unscheduled visits to hospitals, farms, orphanages, warehouses and homes, among other places, to find out how much and how often the people in these locations were eating. In addition, the team wanted to find out how much protein they were getting.
“Every person knew to the day the last time they had protein,” said Austin, whose work has recently been featured in KoreAM magazine and on NPR and PBS. “One elderly gentleman said he had an egg on September 3. We asked ‘why did you have an egg on September 3.’ He said it was his birthday.”
Austin also shared stories of Korean children with blonding hair, a physical sign of malnutrition, and of a three-year-old girl who was being treated in a hospital after eating too much alternative food. Alternative food, he explained, is when rationed dried food is mixed with ground leaves and bark to volumize portions. “She was being hydrated by salt water, and weighed 16.5 pounds. She was unresponsive and she probably didn’t live. We saw a lot of kids like this.
“We basically confirmed what we would call acute levels of malnutrition. North Korea has a chronic food problem. They don’t have enough to feed everybody a full diet.”
Despite Austin’s team’s findings and the detailed report they submitted, the American government still refuse to send food, says Austin, noting that the government sent $900,000 in flood aid in September, funds was not requested, but that this money was specifically earmarked for hygiene kits, tents and plastic. “We were not allowed to use that money for food, despite the need.”
Austin says that he and his team distributed food they secured outside of this funding, and that the in the months since their last trip, the situation had deteriorated much more rapidly than anticipated.
Food rations that had previously been at set at 400 grams (1,300 calories) of cereal per person per day, had been replaced with daily rations of 150 grams (400 calories) of potatoes.
Despite continued lobbying additional reports and photographs from Austin’s group and other organizations, the American government still refuses to lend a humanitarian hand. The government agrees that food has previously been delivered responsibly by Mercy Corp and others, and that it has always gotten to the people who it has been intended for, namely women, children and the elderly.
He says that historically America has been a nation of generosity and that it has done its part to feed the world’s poor in a time of need. He went on to say that the goodwill that’s fostered in this time of need is invaluable because children who are fed by America will always remember what America did for them.
“Without some kind of direct intervention within the next six to nine months, we think that North Korea is going to hit a catastrophe.”
When asked how Americans can help in this instance, Austen encouraged the audience to write letters to Nancy Lindborg and Dr. Rajiv Shah of USAID, the agency that’s responsible for delivering humanitarian aid in an apolitical manner on behalf of the American government, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.