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Wednesday, February 18, 1998 Published at 11:11 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Millions dead from starvation says North Korean defector

Up to 2.8 million people may have died of starvation because of North Korea's three-year famine and worsening economic crisis.

Former agriculture diplomat Kim Dong-Su, who defected to South Korea in early February, said the figure was the closest possible estimate of deaths because the North's regime had not compiled reliable figures.

Kim, who spent three years negotiating with the United Nations to secure food aid for the stricken north, said the country's communist leaders could not deal with the huge scale of the crisis and they face increasing unrest from the population.

[ image: Up to 2.8 million feared dead]
Up to 2.8 million feared dead
"North Korea's current economic hardship is at its worst and its agriculture is in a shambles," said Kim, who defected while in Rome.

"Vital links in North Korea's socialist system are coming apart, threatening a chain reaction of total collapse."

He said that as the crisis deepened, party leaders were barricading themselves in their own homes, fearing riots.

Largest ever UN relief operation

North Korea ended its isolation in 1995 to seek international relief after massive floods devastated its fragile food production system.

The UN's World Food Programme is running its largest ever operation to bring relief to 7.5 million North Korean people, a third of the population.

The international community has donated 650,000 tonnes of grain and Pyongyang has asked for an extra 800,000 tonnes.

[ image: N Korea: agriculture has collapsed]
N Korea: agriculture has collapsed
But Kim said the North Korean people were going hungry as the military built up rice reserves.

"It's only the people who go hungry and suffer pain," he said. "Their discontent is coming up to the crust."

"The development of the country's agriculture is impossible and there is no way to revive it."

Centralised distribution had collapsed and has been replaced with black market trading of food produced outside of collective farms, said Kim.


Diplomats, desperate for money, were now smuggling drugs into the country to make ends meet.

Kim revealed dozens of officials, including a senior party secretary, had been executed last year.

Most of the condemned prisoners came from the ruling party's youth league and had been charged with spying.

The highest profile official to be executed was Suh Kwan Hee, an agriculture secretary, but it was unclear whether he had been charged with espionage.

Kim is the third North Korean diplomat to flee to Seoul since the economic crisis deepened.

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