Daily battle waged simply to stay alive

By Malcolm Moore

Most North Koreans struggle to find enough food to survive.

A North Korean veteran of the Korean War bows his head during a mass military parade.  Photo / AP
A North Korean veteran of the Korean War bows his head during a mass military parade. Photo / AP

The contrast could not be more stark. In Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un enjoyed perhaps the proudest moment of his nascent leadership as North Korea beamed its now familiar images of strength to the world; goose-stepping brigades, tank barrels raised in salute, and hundreds of thousands of cheering cadres celebrating the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.

Despite the dizzying heat, soldiers marched through the vast Kim Il Sung Square for more than two hours in perfect synchronicity, their boots shaking the ground. Above, fighter jets and military helicopters thundered past.

But barely 95km away, in the countryside around the capital, the reality of life under Kim's regime could not be more different.

Alf Evans, a 45-year-old British aid worker from Kendal who spent 10 days in the countryside around Pyongyang earlier this month, has given a rare first-hand account of how, for most North Koreans, life is little more than a daily struggle to find enough food to stay alive. He found that many are still struggling to recover from the aftermath of last year's Typhoon Bolaven, which destroyed the homes of more than 26,000 people.

While Pyongyang's carless streets and austere monolithic buildings are now familiar to many in the West, almost no one has been allowed to witness the struggle in North Korea's countryside. Evans was permitted a tour of some desperately poor areas. He first visited in January, before returning for a second trip from July 6 to 16. Hiring a minibus, he was driven, with his minders, up to 160km from Pyongyang into the heart of the countryside.

"We had to be back in Pyongyang every night. No foreigners are allowed to stay outside the city," he said.

While North Korea is no longer in the desperate straits it found itself in the 1990s, when up to 10 per cent of its 20 million population are thought to have starved to death, life remains on a knife-edge in the countryside.

Evans visited Unpa, Sohung, Rinsan, Pongsan, Kumchun and Yonsan counties. "Every scrap of earth that can be used to grow something is being used. They had even cut tiny six-inch wide terraces into the sides of the road and in the mountains they are farming on 30-degree slopes," he said.

"It looked to me like the poor parts of Colombia or Haiti. Poor people are the poor everywhere. But here it was really, really down to the conditions," he said.

From Evans's experience, a total of 20 days in rural areas, North Korean farmers do have enough to survive. "The embassy in Pyongyang said it had seen people whose hair was falling out from malnutrition, but the people I saw looked like they were ordinary peasant farmers. They were stick thin, of course, but they had enough energy to move around. They spend a lot of their time battling against the elements. The kids were all running around and kids who are malnourished do not run around," he said.

Shelterbox's tents remain dotted throughout the countryside, and Evans's North Korean minders explained to him that, even a year after Typhoon Bolaven, there were not enough building materials for reconstruction.

Many homes simply crumbled in the face of bad weather.

As for the market reforms that could enable North Koreans to keep and sell some of their produce, Evans said: "I did not see any markets."

Shelterbox has so far sent 1200 tents to North Korea, but Evans, a former air force navigator who joined the charity three years ago, is trying to raise funds to send more relief to victims of this year's floods.

Back in Pyongyang, Kim stood with Li Yuanchao, the Chinese Vice-President, beaming at what may have been the largest military parade ever mounted.

Kim did not address the troops, but Choe Ryong Hae, the chief political operative of the Korean People's Army, gave a speech that lacked the usual bombast. "For us with our utmost task of building an economy and improving the lives of the people, a peaceful environment is greater than ever," he said, while omitting a mention of the country's nuclear programme.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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