02/16/2005, 00.00
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Pyongyang children die so that the regime may live

Seoul (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Kim Hyuk is young, just 22. In 1997 he fled his native North Korea.

Yesterday in Seoul, he spoke at a human rights conference organised by an alliance of South Korean and international agencies.

He spoke about the three years he spent in a North Korean orphanage with 70 fellow inmates.

He spoke words that broke the silence that had recently fallen over the issue of human rights violations in North Korea as the world fretted over the Communist regime's nuclear programme.

Kim Hyuk told his story. He described how, as food rations slowly dried up, the children were increasingly forced to fend for themselves.

"The older children would go out of the orphanage and steal food and pickpocket to stop themselves from starving, but the young kids couldn't do that," Mr Kim said.

The North Korean government has cut rations down to 250 grams which is half a person's daily needs. Hunger is one consequence; high child mortality is another.

"In about three months, 27 children died from fever, tuberculosis, typhoid and other diseases," Kim said. "Sometimes we would try to feed a child who was just about to die, but they couldn't eat because their stomach had shrunk. They just threw up."

North Korea has a population of 22 million, not counting the 2 million who, according to international agencies, died in the last few years from starvation.

Kim's eyewitness accounts were echoed by those of Park Gwang-in, 30, a former teacher who escaped from Pyongyang's grip.

Mr Park described how, during 1996 celebrations to mark the birthday of the late North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung, one of his pupils collapsed and was rushed to hospital.

"Like a lot of children he was starving, but because he was participating in celebrations to mark the birthday of Kim Il-sung, he had received a piece of bread, and he ate it too fast," Mr Park said.

The North Korea that he describes is right out of Dante's inferno. "North Korean children are living in a land of death and the North Korean leadership is sacrificing them to stay in power."

Although inter-Korean relations have warmed in recent years, South Korea has been extremely reluctant to raise the human rights issue for fear of upsetting Pyongyang.

"North Korea's human rights problem is reaching the desperate point where silence can no longer be a virtue," warned Paik Choong-hyun, president of the Korean Society for International Human Rights Law and a former UN special rapporteur.

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