A U.S. congressman who recently visited North Korea said April 8 in Tokyo that he met with starving citizens there and witnessed a serious fuel shortage in the flood-stricken country.

“Everybody is systematically starving together,” Tony Hall, a Democrat from Ohio, said at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. Hall called for increased international food assistance on humanitarian grounds despite widespread criticism of the North Korean government and other problems connected with the closed Stalinist state.

Floods devastated North Korea last summer for the second year in a row, destroying crops and leaving many fields covered with sand. Hall said food rations there have been cut to just 100 grams a day for many weeks, less than half of last August, when he previously visited the country.

Japan said April 7 that it will not give food aid to North Korea until Pyongyang answers charges that its agents abducted a Japanese girl in 1977. The allegations came up in February and have been discussed in the Diet. Pyongyang has denied the allegations.

Tokyo has contributed $6.5 million over the last two years in response to U.N. requests for aid to North Korea.

Hall said he traveled around the northern part of North Korea from April 4 through 7 on a fact-finding mission to gauge the extent of famine. Four people from the U.S., including a USA Today reporter, joined him on the trip, which was financed by the U.S. government and Congress.

It is unusual for Pyongyang to allow a Western journalist to embark upon such a trip. Hall said he insisted on it so that the situation could be reported. His team visited the cities of Anju, Sinuiju and Pakchon — all between Pyongyang and the northern border with China.

In Anju, he visited the home of a young woman, who told him that her family had already eaten the rice-and-corn gruel that would be their only meal that day and that there was no food in her house. In the border city of Sinuiju, a hospital with 800 beds had no heat, Hall said, adding that he could see his breath because of the cold.

The congressman reiterated that his trip was largely self-guided — he used his own interpreter, mapped out the schedule himself instead of having one prepared by North Korean officials, and made unannounced stops at villages and talked with citizens. North Korean officials, as is always the case for foreign visitors, accompanied his team.

Everyone he talked with in the villages told him they were hungry but no one criticized the government, Hall said. He quoted them as saying the “dear leader,” Kim Jong Il, will take care of them.

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