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Starving North Koreans forced to survive on diet of grass and tree bark

Crippling food shortages exacerbated by government policies in North Korea have caused widespread illness as thousands are forced to survive on so-called "wild foods" such as grass and tree bark, according to testimonies obtained by Amnesty International in a new report.Hwang, a 24-year-old man from Hwasung, North Hamgyong province, was homeless and lived alone from the age of nine. Foraging for wild foods was his only option to avoid starvation.“I ate several different kinds of wild foods, such as neung-jae, which is a wild grass found in the fields. It’s poisonous – your face swells up the next day. Other kinds of grass and some mushrooms are also poisonous so you could die if you picked the wrong one," says Hwang.  Wild foods like seaweed and mushrooms are traditionally a supplementary part of the North Korean diet, especially in rural areas. But as food shortages have intensified, the population has come to rely more on wild foods that have no nutritional value, simply to fend off hunger.  Many of these non-traditional wild foods can be poisonous and cause severe digestive problems. The UN has found that diarrhoea caused by wild foods is among the leading causes of malnutrition among children under 5.  Amnesty International's report, the Crumbling State of Health Care in North Korea, reveals how the North Korean government has been unable to feed its people and,in violation of international law, has refused to cooperate fully with the international community to receive food aid.  The chronic food shortages have forced North Koreans to eating barely digestible or even poisonous plants, consigning the most needy to hunger and illness.Amnesty International has documented how North Koreans have been adding grass or roots to existing foodstuffs to make food go further, such as mixing grass with ground corn to make corn gruel. Hwang’s diet consisted of wild foods and other sources that were equally poor in nutrition."Sometimes I mixed corn powder with pine tree bark, which gave me bowel problems but I needed to add something to my food to satiate my hunger. I also ate the leftover ingredients after making corn alcohol and tofu. I knew all these foods had little nutritional value, but I still ate them to fill my stomach,” says Hwang. In the early to mid-1990s, unable to combat the growing food crisis and refusing to seek international assistance, the North Korean government actively encouraged the population to forage for alternative or wild foods instead, such as roots, grasses and stalks, promoting them as healthy and safe sources of nutrients. Since then, food rations have either been suspended or dramatically reduced. By 1996, the height of the famine of the 1990s, the UN estimated that wild foods accounted for some 30 per cent of the North Korean diet.  Never shaking off chronic food insecurity, North Korea again suffered a severe food crisis in 2006-2007, and a World Food Programme 2008 assessment found that North Koreans’ consumption of wild foods had increased by nearly 20 per cent since 2003-2005.  Thousands are estimated to have starved to death in North Korea as recently as February this year after a botched currency revaluation.  Hwang, who left North Korea in September 2001, was among a growing number of homeless children - or "kkotjebi" - who had either lost their parents due to starvation or whose parents had abandoned them or went to China to find a job. He says his irregular and sporadic meals brought on digestive problems.“I normally ate one meal a day. I was always hungry. If I had something to eat, I would eat it all. Even if I was full, I would continue eating because I didn’t know when I would have the chance to eat again. "Also because I was homeless, I couldn’t take the food with me, so I just finished it in one go. Whenever I ate too much, I suffered from indigestion, including stomach ache and diarrhoea."As the food shortages worsened, North Korea's population relied more heavily on wild foods and ventured to varieties that can be dangerous, especially among young children and the elderly.  Park, a 27-year-old man from Chongjin, North Hamgyong province who left North Korea in April 2007, also had adverse reaction from eating wild foods.  “I foraged for wild foods in the mountains.  Once I almost died eating mushrooms that were poisonous. Some wild greens or roots can be dangerous or difficult to digest.  During a particularly rough patch, I also ate food you normally feed to pigs.”