Speaking out videos: MSF and North Korea 1995-1998

15 May 1997

31 May 1997


8 July 1997 - Catherine Bertini, WFP (English)

Link to Video

 11 April 1997 

14 July 1997

 17 August 1997

October 1997 - Journeyman Pictures


7 December 1997

Link to Video

7 December 1997 - Hong Kong - Video of a surgical operation

Link to Video

December 1997, North Korea (English)

12 April 1998 – France 2 - Report in Dandong, China/North Korea border (French)

Journalist: In Pekin, for the second day running, negotiations are underway between North and South Korea. The famine is high on the agenda; North Korea is calling for South Korea's aid as food shortages hit the entire population.

Report - Isabelle Bechler and Tristan Le Bras:
Dandong is one of China’s gateways into North Korea. It's a small place, with little activity, but it seems like a boom town compared to the rampant poverty on the opposite bank. Even the Mao of Dandong turns his back on Pyongyang. The only relief this little dictatorship has: one train a day and the bridge that brings in humanitarian food and goods to trade. These days the Chinese truckers take their lunches with them as there's no food to be found in North Korea. "The kids are in a pitiful state. You can see that they don't eat enough. They're always waiting for us on the other side of the bridge to ask for leftovers". "They're really hungry. We carry raw materials to make soap, for example - industrial stuff, totally inedible. But the kids can't cram it down fast enough because it's got butter in it."

Even if it pretends otherwise, North Korea can't hide what's going on at this border. Not one of the scarce factory chimneys is smoking, not even the faintest trace of activity, apart from the odd transhipment here and there. Just the naked, utterly desolate winter. Apparently ever growing numbers of desperate Koreans are seeking clandestine refuge in China's Korean families because their state has nothing left to give out. The daily ration per head doesn't even reach 300 grams of rice, the bare minimum for survival, way short of fuelling a child's growth. You do wonder how these kids on death row find the energy to sing the patriotic hymns they're constantly hammered with. And yet they get their best shot at nourishment in the crèches and schools. The only one spared: the army, which regularly kowtows to Kim Jong-il, the son of the defunct dictator. An army permanently primed to fight until it drops with the South - and with the West as a whole for that matter. An army frozen in the cold war.

14 June 1998

 30 September 1998

30 September 1998 - France 2 - interview with François Jean - MSF quitte la Corée du Nord (French)

Journalist: Médecins Sans Frontières announces its definitive withdrawal from North Korea. In this communist country, the horrors are indescribable. Hundreds of thousands of people have died of famine in three years. MSF denounces the authorities' diversion of aid.

Willian Eregoyen: "Some North Korean children are so weak they spend the whole day immobile, with haggard eyes. Famine - under-nourishment resulting from a severe deterioration in the situation over the last few years”, states Médecins sans Fronitères. Armed with testimonies from refugees who’ve crossed into China, the humanitarian organisation is sounding the alarm. Last month, an American delegation even evaluated between 300 and 800 000 deaths caused by the famine.

François, MSF project leader: The people most affected are certainly those living in small towns, industrial workers who aren't in the strategic industrial sectors or who don't raise any cash via exported goods.

Journalist: MSF will withdraw from North Korea. The doctors claim that their assistance was used to the detriment of the victims. UNICEF is not confirming the humanitarian workers' accusations for now. North Korea is still one of the most closed countries in the world. The United States, despite its massive participation in this aid, does not seem concerned by MSF's calls.

France 2 - Interview with Li son Hok, North Korean dissident & François Jean, MSF (French)

Journalist: Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Let’s start off tonight with an exceptional testimony from an opponent of the North Korean regime. Her name is Li Son Hok and she was received at the National Assembly this Tuesday. She described to the deputies how she was victimised during her detention – thirteen years in prison for dissidence. Her aim; draw the international community’s attention to the political situation in North Korea, which remains highly obscure.

Peggy Leroy: Ms. Li managed to maintain her composure almost throughout her address to the National Assembly this morning. At ease among the deputies and journalists, this former dignitary of the North Korean regime began relating her story in a measured tone. She was arrested in 1986 for refusing corruption. Sent to a correction camp, she was subjected to Middle Ages-style torture for seven years. Ordeals that she still struggles to describe:

Li Son Hok: I was forced to drink more and more water. I fainted, I vomited, I had to drink more. Then I had to lie on my back while a plank was placed on my stomach. The police stamped on it, forcing the water out. It's impossible to describe the suffering this water torture causes. You think your intestines are going to burst and your stomach will rip open. The suffering is appalling.

Leroy: At present there are some 200 000 political prisoners, and above all, thousands of North Koreans are starving. These images date from 1998. They were taken by a North Korean dissident who returned to his country to film in secret. This documentary, which is rare, shows among others the many abandoned, haggard children with only fish bones to eat. The Kim Jong-il regime has the nuclear bomb, and a modern army, but deliberately leaves part of its population to die.

François Jean (research director, MSF): If there is a famine in North Korea, it’s a conscious political choice made by the authorities. The choice to leave part of its people to die rather than open the country up to external scrutiny and contact.

Leroy: Since the mid ‘80s, the famine has left between one and three million people dead. To prop up one of the world’s last communist dictators, this is the price to pay. Médecins sans Frontières left North Korea in September ‘98. The organization considers that its aid did not reach the victims, serving merely to strengthen the regime.

Jean: It’s clear that in North Korea there is a complete contradiction between humanitarian work, which aims to assist the most vulnerable, and the regime’s rationale, which is mainly focused on distributions to the army, senior ranking party members and economically useful people.

Leroy: Far removed from the gaze of human rights defenders, North Korea and its atrocities often go unnoticed. After the National Assembly, Ms Li is going to the European Parliament to remind democratic European countries that some walls are still left to bring down”.

26 July 2003 – AP TV News, France 3 - Interview with Marine Buissonnière, MSF - Que se passe-t-il vraiment en Corée du Nord ? Famine et misère (French)

Journalist: It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Korean war. Ceremonies are being organised in Seoul and Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, where the humanitarian situation lurches from bad to worse. No one knows how the 23 million North Koreans are really doing.

Report from Pierre Babet and Eric Jeannet: Fog. It masks the horizon, and the binoculars’ view. In the distance, we should see North Korea beyond the 38th parallel separating the two Koreas these last 50 years. What’s really happening in Pyongyang? Fog. What we do know for sure: there’s over a million soldiers over there that need feeding in the middle of a famine, and that means defections. How many defectors have left the ranks and are hiding in China? 100 000, 300 000? Choï Jing-i, a 40 year old literary figure, managed to reach Seoul with a few snippets of information; “The food crisis has got worse and worse. We always say that 1996, ’97 and ‘98 were the hardest years in North Korea. But it’s even harder now than it was then and there are so many people dying of hunger.” The previous famine decimated the country: two million deaths. Marine Buissonnière of Médecins sans Frontières is following the humanitarian situation in the North from Seoul: “The North Koreans have tried to set up substitution methods to survive. But since the reforms in July 2002 there’s been galloping inflation, prices have risen five, ten or twenty-fold, meaning that North Koreans' purchasing power currently stands at zero or there abouts. But they’re not paid anyway, or are only paid on paper if they’re fortunate enough to have a job, so they’re completely destitute, again”. Pyongyang has spent the last few days celebrating the armistice of ’53, which it calls “the Victory”. But 4.5 million North Koreans are totally dependent on external aid. This victory is a bitter one, and hearts are not in it.