ICAS Special Contribution

No. 99-1027-TPH

 Testimony of
U.S. Rep. Tony P. Hall
to the House International Relations Committee
October 27, 1999

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[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution with written permission to ICAS, of the testimony of The Hon. Tony P. Hall, before House Committee on International Relations, U. S. House of Representatives, Washington, D. C., October 27, 1999. sjk]


Testimony of

U.S. Rep. Tony P. Hall

to the House International Relations Committee

October 27, 1999

Good morning, Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee.

We seem to be testing the theory that honorable men can disagree quite often lately, and I want to thank you for letting me come today and disagree with you in person. I know your views about North Korea (and those of some of our colleagues) are sincerely held, and I appreciate your hearing my testimony this morning.

I have not seen the companion report on fuel assistance so I will confine my comments to the humanitarian situation.

My Experience in North Korea

As you know, I have been to North Korea five times in the past three years. I spend as little time as possible in the capital, so I can focus on the people in remote areas whose condition is far worse and whose suffering is hidden from most outsiders.

I don't make these trips out of any particular interest in North Korea; in fact, my first experience with that regime was when President Reagan asked me to go to the memorial service for the South Korean cabinet ministers killed by North Korean agents in Rangoon. I couldn't understand Pyongyang in the 1980s, and I still can't figure out why they do some of the things they do.

The reason I go to North Korea is the same reason I went to Sudan last year, and to Rwanda the year before that -- because of the humanitarian crisis its people are facing. Most experts I talk to believe two million or more Koreans have died in this crisis twice the number Ethiopia's famine claimed. This is the worst famine in the world today; that is the reason I go, and it is why I am here today.

GAO Report Makes Significant Omissions

I have three problems with the General Accounting Office's report on food aid to North Korea. My first is that its negative bias does not track with my experience, or that of the scores of aid workers I have met.

  • It omits evidence from an historic scientific survey of children done by UNICEF, WFP and the EU and endorsed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. That survey found 62% of North Korea's young children are chronically malnourished, and 16% acutely so -- making North Korea the 4th most malnourished nation in the world.

    Nor does this report include recent findings that newborns' average birth weight has dropped from 7-1/4 pounds to less than 5 pounds, with babies often weighing just 4 pounds at birth.

  • This report omits virtually all evidence about the scope of this famine, including Committee staff's own estimate that as many as 2.4 million people have died in this famine.

    It overlooks a rigorous study by Johns Hopkins University that was published in a respected medical journal, The Lancet, that found a 10% death rate in one province.

    And it excludes the less scientific, but very credible, reports by a group of Buddhist monks working secretly inside China with North Korean refugees; they say the death toll tops three million.

  • This report twists spot checks of 10% of the schools, hospitals and orphanages that WFP supplies into a finding that 90% have not been visited. That ignores two key facts: (1) that this is twice the usual number of spot checks WFP makes in a country; and (2) that WFP is not policing the delivery of every grain of aid it is simply ensuring that delivery systems in place are working.

  • Worst of all, this report suggests that you can't believe your eyes that until there is proof that food aid is not being diverted, the improving conditions all recent visitors have observed in North Korean children is irrelevant.

Yet this report does not cite even a single instance where food aid has been diverted from hungry people to the military or governing elites. In fact, it notes that there is no evidence of such diversions. Let me repeat that: According to the General Accounting Office, there is no evidence of such diversions.

There's an old saw that fits the GAO's work on this report to a tee -- one Dr. Armey recently cited on the floor. It holds that an economist is someone who spends all his time proving that something which works in real life could not possibly work in theory. That is what the GAO has demonstrated with this report, to the detriment of this Committee's oversight work and to the GAO's shame.

GAO Report Raises the Standard for Humanitarian Relief Everywhere

My second complaint about the GAO report is that, if we accept the standard it lays out, we risk raising the bar so high that we will never be able to help starving people anywhere.

Does the food air-dropped over southern Sudan go only to victims of the fighting. . . or is it shared with the rebel soldiers who try to protect them? What about assistance in Kosovo, or in African refugee camps, or in West Timor, or the other impossible situations where we are trying to save the lives of innocent people?

If conditions in North Korea or any of these desperate places were perfect enough to get the GAO's seal of approval, there would be no famine there in the first place. It's never open and transparent societies that are the ones in trouble. It's always places like Ethiopia, and Somalia, and North Korea -- and the reason is that regimes which don't respect human rights are regimes that don't respond to their people's human needs very well either.

If we refuse to help people who live under brutal regimes -- even when we can hide behind the excuse that we can't absolutely guarantee they are getting food we are betraying President Reagan's policy that "a hungry child knows no politics."

Our country is better than that. We are clever enough to find ways around the hurdles like the ones detailed in this report. WFP and the private charities working in North Korea see the human cost of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. We should support them in the tremendous good they are doing, Mr. Chairman.

GAO Report Removes Oversight Tool

My third major quarrel is that the ultimate result of this report is to effectively remove a tool that Congress uses to meet its oversight responsibility the GAO investigation.

The publication of a report that selectively excludes the context in which the WFP operates, and virtually all evidence that contradicts investigators' preconceived views and your views, Mr. Chairman -- virtually guarantees that no GAO investigator ever will be allowed into "the Hermit Kingdom." That will insult Congress and undermine our colleagues' support for humanitarian aid. And that is why the GAO's decision to rush its work and publish something so incomplete deserves criticism.

Mr. Chairman, will all due respect to you, it has been clear from the beginning that this report was timed to coincide with the release of Dr. Perry's findings. There is nothing new in this report; all of the problems and challenges that GAO details were reported by WFP and private charities to US-AID and to Congress as they arose.

Despite wide concern about the report's timing, my office responded to aid workers' concerns that GAO was part of a partisan crusade -- by assuring them that fairness was the GAO's middle name, and by urging them to cooperate with its investigators.

Frankly, I was surprised to learn that GAO investigators tried just once to obtain visas from North Korea. Few who wish to visit succeed on their first request -- and virtually no one was granted visas in August, a month when North Korea celebrates the end of Japanese colonialism. I understand that even your delegation couldn't get visas to travel there this August, Mr. Chairman. I fully expected investigators to try again.

Without publication this report, I think North Korea would have softened its position on visas, despite its typically obnoxious rhetoric. Few things are more important to Pyongyang than improving its relations with Washington. Even this Committee's staff was permitted to visit remote areas in 1997 and 1998 -- just one example of Pyongyang's recent efforts to reach out to Washington.

The historic turn of events last month made it even more likely that a second visa request may have been granted. I was disappointed to learn that instead of seizing that opportunity, the GAO proceeded on its original timetable.

The result is GAO investigated North Korea by going only to Rome. It opted for a quickie investigation of one of the largest humanitarian operations in the world, instead of a thorough one. It produced a report that aid workers don't find credible, a report that does nothing to help U.S. and U.N. representatives press for greater access. And it foreclosed the Congress from getting a true picture of what is happening to the people inside North Korea.

Mr. Chairman, there is no one who cares more about feeding hungry people wherever they live than I do. There is no one who would make a bigger racket than I would if food donated to starving people was diverted to anyone else. I do not spend time -- in hospitals and orphanages, with TB patients and sick children, with AIDS patients and former prostitutes -- to help the leaders of the countries that aren't doing enough to ease their suffering. I do it to help people who know little about politics people who want simply to eat, to survive.

I appreciate your call for the policy review Secretary Perry has just completed, and am pleased it resulted in progress in US-DPRK relations. I also appreciate your request for this GAO investigation; I am only sorry that your second request was filled in a way that may well set back efforts to ensure U.S. food aid is reaching those in need.

Comptroller General's Response

Mr. Chairman, I want to inform the Committee that I met with David Walker about these concerns; I understand his colleague, Ben Nelson, will include some clarifications in his testimony. I appreciate that, and I want to thank both of them for looking into reports that a key member of the investigative team may have brought a personal agenda to this work.

I was heartened by Mr. Walker's interest, and by his acknowledgement that the World Food Programme is taking more precautions in North Korea than it does anywhere else. He told me there is ample evidence that the food WFP delivers is making a tremendous difference, and he seems to appreciate the importance of keeping any problems in proportion to the tremendous good we are doing in North Korea.

North Korea is Changing

Mr. Chairman, I have seen the dramatic change in the way ordinary people in North Korea there react to Americans since we started responding to this famine. Children and adults ran from me in 1996; on my recent visit, they smiled and waved.

I have watched Pyongyang soften too. Just a few years ago, they arrested the State Department translator who accompanied Senator Bob Smith to Pyongyang. Now, their soldiers work side by side with ours trying to answer families' questions about servicemen missing in action since the Korean War. Even more surprising, Pyongyang has allowed Americans to inspect a secret, underground facility, and halted its test of a long-range ballistic missile.

These may seem like small steps, and imperfect ones. But when you consider our troops and our diplomats have spent 50 years trying to get some positive response from North Korea, you realize the significant results our food aid has helped to produce.

U.S. Military, U.S. Farmers, U.S. Allies

In closing, I want to say a few things about the people besides hungry North Koreans who benefit from the improving US-DPRK relationship:

  • First, America's servicemen and women 37,000 of whom are stationed in South Korea. I have heard time and again from our own military that they wholeheartedly support humanitarian aid to the people of North Korea. Not only because it is a humane response to real need, but also because it is an easy investment to make in peace on that dangerous border.

  • Second, America's farmers. We are blessed not only by a prosperous and free democracy, but also by the world's most productive farmers. Without last year's surplus wheat, our contributions to the WFP's work in North Korea probably would be half what they are. The grain our farmers grow is transforming ordinary North Koreans' views about America -- and calling into question decades of Pyongyang's propaganda about the United States' evil intentions.

  • Third, America's allies. President Kim Dae Jung, a hero to democracy activists everywhere, has devoted considerable energy to bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula through his policy of constructive engagement. Japan also supports U.S. efforts to improve relations with North Korea. And nothing is more central to these efforts than our response to the United Nations' appeal for food and medicine for desperate North Koreans.


Finally, I want to share my experience from some of the famines I have witnessed. After the crisis ends but almost never until then -- some people people overthrow their leaders. Some don't. But whatever they do about their government, people who survive it remember famine as the worst kind of hell. They remember who helped them as those around them were dying. And they never forget who found excuses to do too little to save their family and friends.

This GAO report ought to renew our resolve to keep pressing Pyongyang to give WFP and others fuller access. It ought not be an excuse to tighten the rules on food aid so much that we cannot help people in North Korea and in other countries who are in dire need.

I respect the concerns you have about the United States' overall policy toward North Korea, Mr. Chairman. I understand my friend Mr. Smith's fear that food aid is "the harbinger of how they will deal with us on the nuclear issue."

But I would submit that your quarrel is not with the World Food Programme. It is not with one of the most conscientious and aggressive Executive Directors that organization has ever had, a leader who has turned ships around and refused to play Pyongyang's games. It is not with Mercy Corps and the other American charities working in difficult conditions but getting the job done.

I appreciate your determination to ensure that our food is getting to the people in North Korea who know nothing about politics; people who only want to survive. But as the Committee examines our policy toward North Korea, I urge you

  • to set aside the contempt for its regime that all Americans feel for totalitarian states as you make your judgments;

  • to focus your attention on the nuclear and missile issues that I believe are your real concerns about President Clinton's policy toward North Korea; and

  • to do all you can to support the humanitarian aid that is saving hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I would be happy to answer any questions.

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