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Famine Ravages North Korea

Famine and economic collapse cut the life expectancy of North Koreans by more than six years during the 1990's, a senior North Korean official said in a rare disclosure.

Death rates for infants and young children have risen while incomes fell by almost half, said a report presented by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon to a UNICEF conference in Beijing.

North Korea says 220,000 people died of famine in 1995-98. South Korean and U.S. estimates are much higher. The U.S. State Department, in a human rights report released earlier this year, said a million North Koreans had died of starvation and related illnesses since 1995.

The report didn't give specific figures for famine deaths, but said average life expectancy fell from 73.2 years in 1993 to 66.8 years in 1999.

North Korea's population grew by 1.5 million in the same period to a total of 22.6 million, the report said.

The mortality rate for children under age 5 rose during that time from 27 deaths per 1,000 to 48 per 1,000. According to the report the infant mortality rate rose from 14 to 22.5 per 1,000 births.

North Korea has relied on foreign aid to feed its people since 1995, when its agricultural system collapsed after decades of mismanagement. Years of bad weather aggravated the situation.

Choe said a flood in 1995 caused $15 billion in damage. The disappearance of trading partners with the fall of the Soviet Union and sanctions imposed on the country for failing to curb missile sales abroad also hurt the economy, he said.

North Korea's per capita gross national product tumbled from $991 per year to $457.

Economic problems have also brought on a health crisis. The percentage of the population having access to safe drinking water fell from 86 percent in 1994 to just 53 percent two years later. The percentage of children receiving vaccination coverage dropped from 90 percent to 50 percent by 1997.

A German doctor who had traveled widely in the impoverished communist country described the bleak conditions facing the nation Tuesday.

Norbet Vollertsen, expelled by Pyongyang in December after taking Western journalists on unauthorized tours of the North Korean countryside, said that hospitals lacked basic facilities, leaving patients vulnerable to poor hygiene and extreme temperatures.

"They have no running water. No electricity…They do not have any medicine, no bandage material, no drugs, no nothing," he told reporters in Tokyo. "Some of the children are in such bad condition, they've no emotional reaction anymore. They can't even scream."

North Korea's report comes a day after the European Union established diplomatic ties with North Korea.

The report also pledges better cooperation with the international community – a possible sign that the isolated Stalinist state will further its recent opening to the outside world.

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