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North Korean Food Shortages and Military Development

Aired November 17, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, North Korea, the world focuses on its nuclear weapons, but its economy is collapsing, millions are going hungry, and thousands are defecting. So what is more of a threat, a failed state or a nuclear North Korea?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

The United Nations said that 9 million North Koreans are going hungry. That's a third of its population. And it evokes bitter memories of the '90s when up to a million people died of starvation. But what's so surprising is that North Korea is not a poor country. It's selling billions of dollars worth of natural resources, and it's got trillions more in the ground. So where is the money going?

The country's slogan is "Songun," which means "military first." We'll discuss that with our guest.

But first, Dan Rivers looks at the dilemma facing the defectors.


DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They've escaped the most repressive regime in the world and, after months of secret travel, have finally arrived in South Korea. Eighty percent of the workers at this cardboard box factory are North Korean.

This woman arrived in the South three years ago. She's found it tough adjusting to her new life and feels she has to work harder than the South Koreans just to keep up. She doesn't want to show her face for fear of reprisals against the family she left behind.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): In North Korea, all you need to do is go to work and stand there for eight hours. But here, you need to really make an effort to survive. When everyone else takes one step forward, I feel like we need to take two, and that puts a lot of pressure on me.

RIVERS (on-screen): Just a 10-minute drive from the factory, you can actually see North Korea. This is the heavily defended frontier between North and South, and it's virtually impossible for refugees to cross here. So those that want to make a new start in the South have to take a long, perilous journey through countries like China, Laos and Thailand, using a network of secret safe houses known as the underground railway.

(voice-over): We visited one Christian-run safe house outside Bangkok, a simple service of thanks, a new experience for refugees from a country that's banned religion. From here, the refugees claim asylum before being put on a flight to Seoul.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you in gold group (ph) or general group (ph)?

RIVERS: Some have ended up here, a church school in Seoul specializing in teaching refugees skills to help them integrate into modern society. After years of propaganda-filled education in North Korea, this is their first chance to learn English and speak freely.

Teacher Ko Han says his students struggle in high-tech Seoul.

HAN KO, TEACHER: So when we try to explain what Internet is and what you can do with it, they have no idea, because they only have one channel, like, TV channel, so it's things like that, it's just really mind-blowing.

RIVERS: Human rights groups say smuggled DVDs of South Korean soap operas are fueling warped expectations.

JOANNA HOSANIAK, CITIZENS' ALLIANCE FOR NORTH KOREAN HUMAN RIGHTS: North Koreans are -- when they watch those DVDs, they assume that, wow, South Koreans are living in such a nice country, they have such a beautiful apartment, they drive Mercedes-Benzes, and so on, so it's very simple. They come here and they think that this is just like that. And -- and it isn't.

RIVERS: This is not the dream life in South Korea that many of these refugees had imagined.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I left my parents, brothers and sisters behind. With each change of season, I miss them more and more. Whether it's raining or snowing, I'm thinking of them.

RIVERS: Thinking of them while she adjusts to a new life which is far from what she expected.

Dan Rivers, CNN, Seoul.


AMANPOUR: And joining me now to talk about all of this is Norma Kang Muico from Amnesty International. She's been documenting the defectors' cases.

Norma, welcome. Thanks for joining us in our London studios.


AMANPOUR: How bad is it for these North Koreans who are trying to come across, seeking what they think is going to be a better life?

KANG MUICO: Well, I think that, if you compare their life in North Korea or even in China, because you have to understand that, when they are in China, they are living secretly, because they would be subjected to forcible deportation.


So from that perspective, it's -- it's better. Life is better in South Korea. But they are treated as second-class citizens. And also, there is still a level of distrust among South Koreans towards North Koreans, so people whom I've interviewed in South Korea, North Koreans, they've told me that they never tell South Koreans they are from North Korea. They will say that they're from the provinces of South Korea.

So they -- they lead a life where they feel that they should have been welcomed in South Korea, but they're not, and that realization is -- is very disappointing to them.

AMANPOUR: Norma...


AMANPOUR: ... even though South Korea makes a great deal about unification and so many of their families are in South Korea?

KANG MUICO: I think that the issue of unification splits the country. Some people would like it for ideological reasons, but the others still have distrust towards the North, especially considering the current political situation.

AMANPOUR: OK, I want to ask you about...

KANG MUICO: And certainly...

AMANPOUR: I want to ask you about China. You mentioned China and how things are bad for them there. We've got several photos that you, yourself, have taken, one of a detention center in China. Tell us about that. Who's in there? And why?

KANG MUICO: The North Koreans who are living in South -- in China, when the Chinese authorities arrest North Koreans, then they are sent to a processing center, and the biggest one is the Tumin Detention Center (ph). And then it's there that they are interrogated. And once they are interrogated, they're forcefully deported back to North Korea. And that is where they will be subjected to forced labor, torture, and ill treatment.

AMANPOUR: There's another photo that we have which is a sign. What is that saying? There's a sign near the North Korean-China border.

KANG MUICO: It's a sign that's written in Chinese and Korean, and it is a warning to the Chinese that if they help support or in any way aid North Koreans illegally in China, that they will be punished.

AMANPOUR: And then there's another photo which is a town, a border town. What's significant about that?

KANG MUICO: It is a town where I conduct an interview. It is -- the town's called Antu (ph), and there are several North Korean women who are married to Chinese farmers there.

AMANPOUR: And why -- why is that -- what did you find out from those North Koreans there?

KANG MUICO: Well, the reason -- one of the reasons why there are more women, North Korean women than North Korean men living in China, is because they can hide. And one of the ways in which they can hide is that they marry Chinese farmers, and then they have the protection of not just their husbands, but their immediate family, and in some cases, as in the case of this town, the local authorities. So when the Chinese police come looking for them, they get a warning, and they're able to hide and avoid the police.

AMANPOUR: And what are you finding from talking to these defectors, whether in South Korea or in China, about the conditions inside North Korea? Is it political? Is it economic? Why are they fleeing?

KANG MUICO: I think that nowadays the predominantly -- the border crossers who come to China and then a lot of them eventually making their way to South Korea, they would be non-political, and they are what -- what we would consider food refugees, so they're leaving their country in order to survive.

AMANPOUR: How much -- how extensive is the food crisis in North Korea right now?

KANG MUICO: It's very extensive, and it hasn't improved. I mean, we had -- we saw the famine in the 1990s, but -- although we wouldn't consider it famine right now, but there are severe food shortages, and North Koreans have been living with food insecurity for over 20 years. And that has an impact on -- on their -- on their psychology. And -- and doctors have said 90 -- over 90 percent of North Korean settlers in South Korea are traumatized.

AMANPOUR: And I also read not just traumatized, but teenage boys, for instance, are on average five inches shorter and weigh 25 pounds less than boys growing up in the South. What are you seeing, if any, of the kids, the teenagers who are coming across?

KANG MUICO: Yes. The food crisis in North Korea affects the most vulnerable groups. In North Korea, there would be the elderly, the children, as you mentioned, pregnant women, so the international community has to do much more to address this food insecurity issue.

AMANPOUR: Is food able to get through? I know there's a lot of politics around it, but they've also been -- the North Koreans have opened their gates, have been forced to, really, to a lot of aid agencies.


How is that affecting the situation?

KANG MUICO: Well, food that is channeled through the World Food Programme has seen better monitoring of the food so that the food actually reaches the most vulnerable. It is still not a perfect system, but it is much better than, say, 10 years ago. But the problem now is, because of the political issue, the security and the military issue, countries are not willing to give food to North Korea.

So Amnesty International would urge countries to separate the two issues. You have military security on one side, but you have the great need for humanitarian assistance that needs to be provided to North Korea for the North Korean people.

AMANPOUR: And in terms of human rights, you document that, as well. President Obama has just named a human rights representative, envoy for North Korea. Is that -- what kind of signal does that send?

KANG MUICO: I think it's a very strong message, especially since the U.S. envoy, Robert King, has mentioned that he would like to bring up the issue of how China has been forcibly deporting North Koreans living in China, so that we welcome that.

I think that we need to put on the agenda of the Obama administration the plight of the North Koreans. Yes, it is important to talk about the nuclear issue, but the humanitarian concern, the human rights of North Koreans living in North Korea, is also a very, very important issue.

AMANPOUR: Norma Muico, thank you so much for joining us.

And President Obama has been in China. We'll see what he got from them on this issue. And when we come back, we will welcome back Victor Cha, who's actually sat around the negotiating table with the North Koreans. We'll be right back.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): Kim Cheol Woong is a North Korean piano prodigy who used to play for Pyongyang's prestigious state symphony. He now lives in South Korea.

CHEOL WOONG KIM, NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR (through translator): Even if you're a great musician, if you're not loyal to the leader, you may to have leave the music field and to work elsewhere, such as in coal mines.

AMANPOUR: So Kim obediently played government-sanctioned music, that is, until he got a taste of musical freedom on a trip to Russia. He fell in love with jazz. A day after returning to Pyongyang, a security official caught him practicing. Kim was forced to write a 10-page apology. Then, he decided to defect.


AMANPOUR: So there are many reasons why people defect, whether it's political, whether it's for artistic freedom, or whether it's for food. And not every North Korean ends up in a life of poverty once they escape, as you saw there in our documentary, "Notes from North Korea."


We're going to continue the discussion now about North Korea with Victor Cha, a North Korean negotiator with the Bush administration.

Welcome back to our program, Mr. Cha.


AMANPOUR: I want to ask you this. The North Korea situation is obviously front and center during President Obama's trip to China. What do you think he could reasonably expect to get from the Chinese on this issue?

CHA: Well, I think the main thing that he was probably looking for is the next step in the negotiation or getting back to the negotiation. It's pretty clear that the Obama administration is going to send a high-level envoy to Pyongyang by the end of this year, and I think part of the discussion in China was about how this step would be as the Chinese have recommended -- the Chinese want the United States to engage with North Korea -- and if this does not result in a North Korean return to six-party talks, I think we're going to look to the Chinese and say, "Now we've done what you've asked. Now use some of your very considerable material leverage to twist their arm and bring them back to the negotiating table so we can get on with the denuclearization process."

AMANPOUR: We posed at the beginning of this program the question, is a failed state more of a threat to the world, with all its millions of potential refugees, economic collapse, or a nuclear North Korea? Which is it, do you think, Mr. Cha?

CHA: Well, I think, Christiane, both of those scenarios pose real problems. A failed state in North Korea would lead to all sorts of refugee flows, the spread not just of people, but also potentially of disease from a starving population, in addition to a loose nukes problem, which would be clearly one of the priorities of the United States in such a scenario.

But a country like North Korea that remains as opaque as it is, with an unpredictable leadership, amassing nuclear weapons, and basically selling every weapons system that they've ever produced, that is also not a good scenario.

So I think, you know, what the administration is trying to do now is trying to work two tracts. They're trying to use negotiations to bring the North back to the six-party process, but they're also using sanctions to try to ensure that the North doesn't -- doesn't proliferate these weapons of mass destruction.

AMANPOUR: Well, we're also talking about the food shortages and the poverty there, and yet we were quite stunned -- and we want to play you this piece of sound from the U.N. human rights rapporteur, how he described North Korea.


VITIT MUNTARBHORN, U.N. SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR: There is critical food shortage, even though the weather, the harvest has been better over the past two years. Likewise, we should bear in mind that the country is not poor. Their volume of exports and trade last year was several billion. And where does the money go?


AMANPOUR: So where does the money go? And as we ask you that, Mr. Cha, we're going to look also at our wall. It's a now-famous satellite picture of the Korean peninsula. The South is full of lights and electricity at night; the North is completely black. Where does the money go? Trillions of dollars of natural resources.

CHA: Well, the trillions of dollars of natural resources still are stuck in North Korea. You know, having others come in and excavate some of those resources, they have one of the largest deposits of coal, for example, excavating some of those resources require foreign companies to come in, and they don't want to open up to allow those foreign companies in.

China is about the only country that has really been able to take advantage of this, trying to invest as much as they can in the ownership of some of those North Korean mineral resources.

More broadly, as you said, Christiane, you have -- you know, this country -- this is a -- this is an industrialized society. This is not some poor, backward country. It's the only industrialized society to have suffered a famine, largely due to economic mismanagement and political ideology. And a lot of that money that they make ends up going back into the military for their -- for, you know, a 1.1 million-man army and for these weapons systems that they develop, you know, at the -- at the desire of the leadership.

AMANPOUR: You mentioned the army. And we've read that actually the army is profiting hugely on these minerals and apparently shipping off billions to China or elsewhere. How entrenched is the army as the organ of power? Because we've also heard that they siphon off all the food, they station soldiers at farms all over the country to make sure they get the food for all their 1.1 million soldiers under arms.

CHA: Sure. I mean, the military, obviously, is a very critical player in North Korea. A lot of the interaction that takes place economically between the North Koreans and the Chinese does not happen in terms of reported trade figures. It happens between the two militaries.

So they are. They are both the protector of the nation, in North Korean ideology, but they are also one of the only sort of organized institutions with instruments of force, and therefore, they feed off the system as much as they protect it.


AMANPOUR: Mr. Cha, you've sat around the table with the North Koreans. What is it like when you're trying to get them to agree, whether it's nuclear issues or whether it's issues such as -- such as food security and -- and the like?

CHA: Well -- well, I think the negotiators that we are exposed to are basically the people from their foreign ministry who deal with the nuclear issue and relations with the United States. And they, like all negotiating teams, you know, have instructions and they're trying to achieve their objectives, you know, with us.

So it's really difficult to have sort of an off-the-cuff or a back- channel conversation about their human rights problems or about the food situation, because if you raise those sorts of issues, they sort of have an established talking point that they come back with.

Now, I think, in terms of the food situation, as your previous guest said, you know, there is clearly a shortfall every year in North Korea. And international organizations, as well as the U.S. government, have tried to fill that void.

There's been one very simple condition, which is that they allow for adequate monitoring of the food as it goes into the country. And if they were to do that, I think the United States government, as well as these international aid agencies, would be very happy to make up the shortfall in grain, in rice, that the -- that the North Koreans suffer from on an annual basis.

AMANPOUR: So one of the questions everybody has, and it seems to be an unanswerable question at the moment, is, what does one do about or with North Korea? Regime change is clearly off the cards. What does one do? How does one make North Korea not just less of a nuclear threat, but bring it into the family of nations? Is it possible?

CHA: Well, it's one of the most challenging diplomatic tasks, I think, that the world and the United States faces. I think that not just the Bush administration, but the Clinton administration and the Obama administration have all tried to make clear to North Korea that there is a path to becoming integrated into the world economy, to receiving assistance from international financial institutions, to receive aid from South Korea and from Japan to large, huge, bustling economies right on their doorstep.

But the key to moving down that path is that they really have to give up their nuclear weapons, because their nuclear programs do not provide them energy, their nuclear programs pose threats to others, and their security is assured by their conventional military deterrent.

So I think what everybody has tried to do is push the North in a direction where it'll choose a path of integration with the world, where it would receive normal relations from -- from Japan and from South Korea and from the United States, as well as things that would help improve the quality of life for every North Korean.

AMANPOUR: You were there when they disabled and started to shut down and dismantle Yongbyon. We saw it. There were U.S. technicians monitoring it. We saw them blow up the cooling tower. Was this all a charade? I mean, they tell us, for instance, that they felt they did their part of it, but they didn't get the energy that was promised to them to -- to make up for not having their nuclear facility.

CHA: Yes. Well, I think -- first thing I would say is that I think that was the most progress that we've made in terms of a basically 24-year negotiation to try to get the North to give up their nuclear weapons. What you saw, Christiane, when you went up there to Yongbyon was a process that I think everybody was quite proud of, in terms of taking first steps towards actually dismantling North Korea's nuclear programs.

The North Koreans claim that the -- the reason it stopped was that aid wasn't provided to them as they were promised. That I don't think is correct. I mean, if you look at the actual record, all the shipments of heavy fuel oil went to North Korea as planned. The real problem was that the next step in the negotiations required the North to provide a declaration and allow for verification of that nuclear declaration.

And this was where the rubber really hit the road, in terms of the North's strategic decision to join the world community, because verification means potentially showing to inspectors or inspectors discovering whatever they may be hiding that is secret, in terms of alternate programs. So I think that's where it all stopped.

AMANPOUR: To be continued, Mr. Cha. Thank you very much, indeed, for joining us.

And next, on our "Post-Script," the U.S. is seeking China's help on North Korea, as we just discussed, but China is holding out on another matter. We'll tell you when we come back.



AMANPOUR: Now, our "Post-Script."

China says its relationship with the United States is the most important in the world, but it's not prepared to let its people listen to the U.S. president, Barack Obama. They censored coverage of his town hall meeting Monday in Shanghai, showing only snippets in their newscasts, and only people living in Shanghai could watch it live on television, even though President Obama studiously avoided offending his hosts.

Now, compare this to his predecessors, President Clinton and Bush. They criticized China on dissidents, on human rights, on Tibet, and yet both their appearances and speeches were broadcast live to the Chinese people. So what is China saying to a new U.S. president who comes in the spirit of conciliation?

You can find out more about China and about what we've been discussing this half-hour, North Korea, online at, for a rare opportunity to enter the hermit kingdom.

That's it for now. For all of us here, goodbye from New York.