More than a million people have died in North Korea during three years of floods and drought, according to a U.S. congressional delegation that visited the country in August, but international aid is beginning to save lives.

The group reports between 300,000 and 800,000 of North Korea's 23 million people have died each year since 1995, claiming more than twice as many lives as the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s.

"They're going through an acute food shortage right now," says Mark Kirk, one of four congressional aides who visited the Communist nation. The group witnessed severe malnutrition and the use of "alternative" foods such as grass, roots, and bark, but reported that government and military leaders appeared well fed.

The situation for young children has greatly improved. "The international food assistance to date has saved an enormous number of lives," Kirk says. But the famine, due in part to natural disasters, deforestation, and poor agricultural practices, will have a lasting impact on the nation's health. Al York, World Concern's director of international programs, says, "The stunting I see in children is devastating. It's affecting a whole generation."

Christian organizations have contributed a significant amount of assistance despite lingering concerns over diversion of aid. World Vision has sent nearly $7.5 million in food, medicines, and clothing since 1995. The aid agency joins Amigos Internationales, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, and Mercy Corps International to form the Private Voluntary Organization (PVO) consortium, which has distributed 75,000 metric tons of grain.

The monitoring of aid distributions has improved, Kirk says. World Concern, which has distributed $3 million in aid, receives better monitoring by treating hunger as a health issue and distributing food kits through the medical system, York says.

Despite recent flooding, the fall harvest should feed the country through April, but Kirk says economic reforms are needed for longer-term sustainability.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.