The Mystery Children

North Korea turned away doctors who wanted to help starving children. One aid worker's reflections.
Will the summit between Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae Jung help the North Korean people? Pyongyang's record is not good. From July 1997 to September 1998, Médecins Sans Frontiè worked in four provinces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea-South Pyongan, Kangwon, North Hwangae and North Hamyong. Our doctors were implementing a medical and nutritional project, aimed at helping the people who were starving throughout the country. We ran into such bureaucratic brick walls that we eventually left the country in frustration.

Our most upsetting experience was our effort to help 600 children with mysterious backgrounds. Most of the children who came to our therapeutic feeding centers arrived with their mothers. They were starving but had families watching out for them. Yet over the 10 months we worked in two hospitals in the city of Pyongsong in the South Pyongyang province, we noticed groups of children arriving sporadically‹we counted 600‹without parents. Their nutritional condition was worse than the others. They suffered from serious skin diseases, suggesting exposure to the elements. They arrived together and, curiously, left together after a week or two of treatment.

Were they street children? I had seen such kids from the windows of trains and cars‹gangs of 10 or 20, standing around outside shut-down factories or railway stations. Had they been left to scrape an existence in the streets after their parents had died in the famine? The medical staff would tell us little about who these children were. Where would they go to after they left our care? To re-education schools? These kids had clearly fallen outside the system.

The authorities in Pyongyang denied that these children existed. When we suggested they might be street children, officials curtly responded that the government takes care of all children. We said we were ready to undertake new projects with new funding to help these kids. The government cruelly used its starving children. At first, they were useful proof of famine for international visitors. But when we tried to actually help, they turned us away. According to the government, people were hungry because of floods, not economic collapse.

As far I know, the economic situation has not changed in two years. So what about these kids? How many are there now? Are they alive or dead? We could have given these children some help, but it was refused to protect the image of a perfect communist world. Médecins Sans Frontiè is ready to begin work again in North Korea, but we must have access to those in need. I hope this North-South meeting will open the door for real.

Pecchio was head of the Médecins Sans Frontières mission in DPRK from 1997 to 1998.

© 2000 Newsweek, Inc.