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Monday, August 30, 1999 Published at 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

'3.5m North Koreans starved to death'

Hall has seen the suffering and thinks a solution to the missile crisis is likely

Up to 3.5m people have died of starvation in North Korea since 1995 and up to 300,000 have fled over the border to China, a Seoul-based charity says.

Congressman Tony Hall; "There's a tremendous humanitarian problem"
And a United States congressman just back from North Korea hints at the possibility that Pyongyang could shelve plans for the launch of a new long-range missile in exchange for food.

The Buddhist charity Good Friends has based its estimates on interviews with over 1,000 North Koreans living illegally in three provinces in China.

[ image: Children and women are suffering particularly]
Children and women are suffering particularly
It estimates that there are at least a 140,000 refugees who have fled to China in search of food, and says that the figure could reach 300,000.

They face being sent back to North Korea, where they are likely to be punished for leaving.

The charity's president, the Venerable Pomnyun, said at the launch of their report, based on analysis of the interviews with refugees, that the death toll from the famine in the North had to be estimated at 3.5m people since 1995.

"With a few exceptions among high officials and a few others who have adjusted to the acute social changes, most ordinary citizens are suffering from serious malnutrition and dying from various diseases," the report says.

Reliable figures hard to come by

The charity's estimates are the highest yet.

Accurate statistics are very difficult to obtain from the isolated country. Foreigners are denied access to most parts.

[ image: North Korea released this picture of last year's missile]
North Korea released this picture of last year's missile
Estimates are therefore often based on official North Korean figures. But experts disagree on whether North Korea's government uses artificially inflated figures in order to attract foreign help, or whether the regime tries to downplay the crisis by keeping the statistics unrealistically low.

Pyongyang puts the death toll at 220,000. South Korea's national statistics office last week estimated that about 270,000 people have starved to death between 1995 and 1998.

According to figures published by the US Congress earlier this year a total of 2m North Koreans have died of famine and related illnesses since 1995.

Good Friends dismissed the South Korean government's figures as "absolutely wrong.

"The government's incorrect estimation leads to incorrect policy towards helping the citizens in North Korea," Mr Pommyun said. "Providing food and medicine for the North Koreans is necessary."

Female suffering

The report says, the famine puts a particular burden on women who are often in sole charge of providing food for their families.

Female refugees are sold to Chinese men for as little as $2.50 and sometimes beaten by their new spouses, according to the charity.

"The fact that women are being sold like dogs is devastating," said a female food refugee in a video shown at the presentation of the report.

"I came with the intention of earning money in China and returning to North Korea for my father, but I couldn't go back to my homeland, even though my husband constantly beat me, as I now have a child."

Famine could offer chance for diplomacy

North Korea's ability to stave off famine has been hampered by five years of flooding. The cumulative effects of floods, combined with inefficient food production, has lead to a stagnation in the country's ability to deal with famine.

[ image: Deputy Foreign Minister Kim: 'Response in good faith']
Deputy Foreign Minister Kim: 'Response in good faith'
Pyongyang is largely dependent on foreign aid to feed its population.

United States Congressman Tony Hall, a Democrat from Ohio, sees the famine as a chance to prevent North Korea from launching another long-range missile, a prospect that has raised concerns in the region.

North Korea is believed to prepare a test of an advanced version of a long-range missile it fired over Japan last year.

Mr Hall, who just finished a fact-finding mission to the country, said North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Gye-gwan urged the US to lift economic sanctions.

'Best opportunity in years'

"If the United States lifts sanctions, we will certainly respond with good faith," Mr Kim was quoted as saying by the congressman.

"This is the best opportunity we've had in years to ease tensions in this region," Mr Hall said.

He also said the North Korean government was looking forward to negotiations next month in Berlin where Mr Kim and Charles Kartman, the US special envoy for Korean affairs, will meet from 7 - 11 September. The missile crisis is certain to be at the top of the agenda there.

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