North Koreans cut off and freezing to death

Daily Telegraph
Sergey Soukhorukov

The men who finally made it into the remote highland village of Koogang were greeted by an eerie silence and a gruesome sight.

Lying among the simple wooden huts and burnt remnants of wooden furniture, they found the bodies of 46 North Korean villagers, including women and children, all of whom had frozen to death. Cut off from the outside world by one of the harshest winters in many years, the villagers had suffered a macabre fate that has exposed both the desperate poverty and callous misrule blighting the Stalinist state.

More than 300 people are thought to have perished from cold so far this winter in North Korea’s mountainous north, victims of temperatures as low as -30C and of an arrogant ruling clique.

“Nobody got out of the trap alive,” said an official at the Chinese embassy in the capital, Pyongyang, who confirmed the events of Koogang. “After heavy snowfalls, there was a severe frost. The inhabitants were doomed.”

In a country notorious for its secretiveness, the regime of President Kim Jong-il has made no mention of the deaths. As the rest of the population struggle to stay warm, 50,000 members of his ruling elite continue to live in splendid isolation in a compound in central Pyongyang – enjoying the benefits of hot water, central heating and satellite television.

Elsewhere in the city, though, the scene could have been lifted from the pages of a Charles Dickens novel. The air is thick with the smell of coal dust, as families light fires on the floors of their apartments to keep out the bitter, cold winds that blow south from Siberia.

Outside Pyongyang, the situation is yet more desperate. A six-mile drive from the city, poor farmers trudge through the snow with bundles of brushwood on their backs.

A massive process of deforestation, begun in the 1990s by Kim Jong-il’s father and predecessor, Kim il Sung, has resulted in huge swathes of forest being chopped down to clear land for farming. The disastrous policy led to large-scale soil erosion, believed by many to have been a leading cause of mass famine of the 1990s, when up to three million people starved to death.

It has made the bitter winter, when the temperature in the capital routinely falls to -13C, even more dangerous as the rural poor struggle to gather enough firewood to sustain them.

The inhabitants of Koogang, around 200 miles north-east of the capital, set fire to tables and chairs, even tearing down the wood from their own homes in a desperate attempt to keep warm.

The World Food Programme estimates that North Korea will be 900,000 tons short of the amount of food needed to feed its 23 million population this year. Aid efforts have been complicated by sanctions, imposed after Kim Jong-il’s regime carried out a nuclear test in October last year. Last week, the country held negotiations with US diplomats aimed at re-starting six-party peace talks, which also include China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Christopher Hill, America’s chief envoy at the talks in Berlin, signalled progress, saying that the US looked forward “to establishing a normal relationship with North Korea”.

But while there may be signs of a thaw in the country’s frosty relationship with the West, in Pyongyang there is no respite from the sub-zero temperatures.

The electricity supply is notoriously unreliable and as evening falls the city streets are plunged into darkness.

The only constant source of light is the giant illuminated copper statue of Kim il Sung on a hill top overlooking the city – cold comfort for those living through the bleak North Korean mid-winter.


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