Relief goods mirror plight of stunted N. Koreans

Sam Kim

Thousands of used but clean shirts, pants and other clothes are stacked in big heaps in warehouses outside Seoul to be sent to poverty-stricken North Korea.  But they can’t be sent as they are, because North Korean officials want to get them their way: all without English writing on them and their size no bigger than “large.”

“In addition, we have color restrictions,” Ahn Jeong-hui, director of the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, the donor of the clothes and other relief goods. “Strong colors could easily repulse North Koreans.”

Whenever impoverished North Korea suffers from flood and other natural or man-made disasters, sympathetic South Korean civic organizations usually respond to their appeal for emergency aid with warm hearts.

The shipment-in-waiting is for thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of North Koreans who were made homeless in massive floods in mid-July.

There were no official North Korean announcement on the extent of the flood damage but its media said “hundreds” of people were killed or missing. One South Korean relief group said “thousands” were killed.

The South Korean civilian aid is in addition to more than US$200 million worth of relief goods scheduled to be sent by the Seoul government, which include 100,000 tons each of rice and cement, 50,000 tons of reinforced steel bars and a number of trucks and other construction equipment.

With its economy in shambles, impoverished North Korea turned to international handouts in 1995 to help feed its 23 million people. U.N. relief workers said the largest floods in the country are expected to result in 100,000 tons of crop damage this year.

After years of dealing with North Korea, South Korean donors have learned that helping the communist country is not just about sending large quantities of supplies. It requires certain “customization,”

“The maximum size of clothes we send to North Korea is ‘large,'” said Hyun Il-hyun, secretary at Join Together Society, another South Korean relief agency, “We know anything bigger, like ‘extra large’ or ‘extra extra large,’ won’t fit North Koreans.”

“What will fit elementary school kids in South Korea will usually fit North Korean middle-schoolers,” she said. “Most North Korean adults will fit well into what South Korean teenagers wear.”

Chronic food shortages and malnutrition have stunted many North Koreans, making some look like dwarfs. Television footage broadcast in South Korea showed gaunt North Koreans scouring winter fields for grains left by reapers.

Nearly 8,700 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953, including 1,139 in 2002, 1,281 in 2003, 1,894 in 2004, 1,383 in 2005 and 1,054 in the first seven months of this year. Many complained of hunger in their communist homeland.

A 2004 survey of 2,300 North Korean defectors showed that average North Korean men and women are 5.9 centimeter and 4.1 centimeters shorter than their South Korean counterparts, respectively. An average 14-year-old boy from North Korea is up to 15.8 centimeters shorter than the same-aged South Korean.

English-embellished clothes are not welcome, either, in North Korea, relief workers said.

“We pick out any clothing that has English writing on it,” Hyun of Join Together Society said. “North Korean authorities apparently don’t want their people to think the clothes are coming from their sworn enemy, the U.S. We also restrict clothes that have the names of South Korean organizations.”

North Korea has asked them to increase shipments of rice and flour instead of instant noodles, according to South Korean relief workers.

“We will comply with the North Korean request and no longer send instant noodles,” said Ahn of the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation. “I think the North’s request has do to with the South Korean marks and logos on the packings.”

According to South Korean government officials, North Korea tightly controls the flow of information among its people. All radio sets are pre-set to monitor only state broadcasts.


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