North Koreans Reduced
To Eating Twigs and Leaves
SEOUL (Reuters) - Hungry North Koreans are eating leaves and twigs, while hospitals have no medicine, water or heat, a U.S. congressman said on Friday after visiting the famine-hit North. ``North Korean people were relying more and more on substitute food,'' U.S. Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, told a news conference after a four-day visit to communist North Korea to assess famine conditions. He said food distribution centres in North Korea had no real food but were instead full of leaves, twigs and cornstocks. ``They grind them into powder and make noodles out of it,'' he said, pointing to samples of coarse food substitutes he had brought back from North Korea. Floods and drought since 1995 have devastated North Korean agriculture. Its industry has ground to a halt, along with foreign trade, leaving the once fiercely self-reliant country dependent on international handouts.

Hall, who visited the reclusive nation for the fourth time, said many patients in hospitals were walking around holding their stomachs because their digestive tracts could not handle the alternative foods. He said he had seen room after room of children in varying degrees of malnutrition at orphanages. ``Sometimes you can hardly hear any noise from these kids.'' Hall said 30 percent of North Korean children between one and two years of age were acutely malnourished and 65 to 67 percent of children surveyed were stunted. Some children were so malnourished they had to be force-fed, he said. ``Our food is getting through and it's keeping a number of people alive,'' he said. ``But when you scratch the surface, the country is in a very, very critical situation.'' Famine in North Korea has killed 300,000 to 800,000 people a year in the past three years, a U.S. congressional team said last year after visiting the country. North Korea was short of more than food, Hall said. ``The hospitals don't have medicine, clean water or heat. Disease control is non-existent,'' he said. Hall said doctors were operating on patients without anaesthesia and under sunlight because hospitals had no electricity. ``They would even wash cotton balls and re-use them,'' he said.

``There is no power in the country, no heat in buildings and hospitals, but you can see a lot of graves,'' he said. International aid agencies expect the grim situation to continue as the 1998 grain harvest is likely to reach just three million tonnes, or two-thirds of North Korea's minimum need. About 4.5 million tonnes of grain are required to feed North Korea's 20 million people, according to the World Food Programme. Runar Soerensen, UNICEF's resident project officer based in Pyongyang, said in Bangkok on Thursday that malnutrition in North Korea has eased slightly in the past year but tens of thousands of children were still hungry and infant and maternal death rates were climbing. Astrid Heiberg, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in Seoul on Thursday that North Korea was heading towards a catastrophe unless it received assistance from the international community.