Triplets rounded up?

From the Times of London:
Michael Sheridan

ALL baby triplets in North Korea are being removed from their parents and placed in bleak state orphanages where they are fed by foreign aid.

The policy has prompted concern among diplomats and aid officials, who have witnessed sets of babies kept in special “triplet rooms” in orphanages across the country.

“There is no doubt that the policy is compulsory and universal,” said a seasoned diplomatic visitor to North Korea who has seen the rooms. He said he had not noticed family members visiting the children in his many calls at the orphanages. Conditions when foreigners are allowed to enter appear to be spartan but clean, according to several witnesses.

Food supplies to orphanages are a priority for both the United Nations relief agencies and the North Korean authorities. Local officials have assured inquirers that the babies are being given privileges to relieve their parents of the anxiety of feeding three mouths while the impoverished Stalinist nation endures an eighth year of food shortages.

But diplomatic experts who understand the Korean language and culture cast doubt on the official explanation.

They believe the true reason is linked to some of the most bizarre aspects of Kim Jong-il’s dictatorship. The number three is auspicious in Korean mysticism and triplets are revered for exceptional good fortune. Some believe they may be destined for power and great achievements, which would account for the regime’s desire to keep them under observation.

Diplomats and international aid officials also doubt that poverty is the explanation, because not even triplets born to high-ranking party members are exempt. “It may be officially atheistic and Stalinist but essentially North Korea operates a state religion infused with superstition, astrology and a personality cult which glorifies Kim as a unique individual,” said the veteran diplomat. “You don’t take any chances with rivals in that system.”

Power conferred by blood descent is also important in Korea’s Confucian tradition. The North Korean capital, Pyongyang, was rebuilt by its communist rulers along principles of Chinese geomancy, with “power lines” linking the purported birthplace of the previous dictator, Kim Il-sung, with the purported tomb of Tangun, founder of the Korean race. As heir to the world’s only communist dynasty, the younger Kim exploits every such tradition to exalt himself, while keeping a careful watch on his clan network of intermarried army and party men.

Children of the elite are usually taken from their parents by the age of two and placed in party-controlled schools to break family bonds and to consecrate their devotion to Kim. Foreign observers believe the triplets are kept together and transferred to these schools when old enough.

The segregation of triplets has provoked debate among UN aid agencies and non-governmental organisations delivering help to North Korea.

Although there appear to be no reasons to fear for the physical safety of the triplets, regular visitors to North Korean orphanages report desperate scenes of isolation and sadness.

On a recent visit a member of a foreign delegation entered a room to see infants placed several to a cot, all rocking backwards and forwards.

“Our people were stunned into silence,” the delegate said. A paediatrician outside North Korea who assessed evidence collected on the visit diagnosed severe emotional trauma.

Witnesses said they had noticed better nursing attention and care for triplets in the special rooms. “But none of those infants knows what affection is,” said one visitor. “Our staff try to cuddle them for a few minutes but then, of course, we have to leave.”

Up to 300 sets of triplets a year are believed to be born in North Korea. In an official statement to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, North Korea said: “Triplets are supplied by the state free of charge with clothing, bedding, a one-year supply of dairy products and a pre-school subsidy, and special medical workers take charge of such mothers and children and care for their health.”

The UN’s World Food Programme has reported a sharp improvement in children’s health in North Korea thanks to foreign aid. Since 1998 cases of acute malnutrition in children under seven have fallen from 16% to 9%, and the number of underweight children has decreased from 61% to 21%.

As tension mounts between North Korea and the United States over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, however, aid officials fear that any military clash could put at risk their ability to feed the children.

There is little doubt of the regime’s cold-hearted approach to paediatrics. In 1998, Médecins sans Frontières pulled out of North Korea, alleging that aid agencies were denied access to so-called 9-27 camps in which sick and disabled children had been dumped under a decree issued by Kim to “normalise” the country.

UN agencies are still arguing for access to closed districts in the northeast of the country, where prison camps and military facilities are located.


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