YANJI, China - At 16, Myung Bok is old enough to join the North Korean army. But you wouldn't believe it from his appearance. The teen-ager stands 4-foot-7, the height of an American fifth- or sixth-grader. Myung Bok escaped the Communist North last summer to join his mother and younger sisters, who had fled to China earlier. When he arrived, 14-year-old sister Eun Hang did not recognize the scrawny little kid walking up the dirt path to their cottage in a village near the North Korean border. She hadn't seen him in four years.
"He's short. I can't believe he used to be my big brother," Eun Hang says sadly as she recalls their early childhood, when Myung Bok was always a full head taller. Now she can peek over the crown of his head without standing on her tiptoes.
The teen-agers go through an almost daily ritual: They stand against a wooden wardrobe in which they've carved notches with a penknife, hoping that after eating a regular diet Myung Bok will grow tall enough to reclaim his status as a big brother.
The short stature of North Koreans has become an international humanitarian crisis - and one fraught with diplomatic and political overtones. It is at the heart of a debate in the international community over whether North Korea should continue to get food aid despite its quest for nuclear weapons.
The World Food Program and UNICEF reported last year that chronic malnutrition had left 42 percent of North Korean children stunted - meaning that their growth was seriously impaired, most likely permanently.
An earlier report by the U.N. agencies warned that there was strong evidence that physical stunting could be accompanied by intellectual impairment.
South Korean anthropologists who measured North Korean refugees here in Yanji, a city 15 miles from the North Korean border, found that most of the teen-age boys stood less than 5 feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds. In contrast, the average 17-year-old South Korean boy is 5-8, slightly shorter than an American boy of the same age.
The height disparities are stunning because Koreans were more or less the same size - if anything, people in the North were slightly taller - until the abrupt partitioning of the country after World War II. South Koreans, feasting on an increasingly Western-influenced diet, have been growing taller as their estranged countrymen have been shrinking through successive famines.
It is brutal proof of the old aphorism: You are what you eat.
"Human beings are really plastic. Features and size are not entirely racial but are greatly affected by diet," says Chung Byong Ho, a South Korean anthropologist who worked on the Yanji study, which was published in December in the academic publication Korea Journal. "We Koreans are genetically homogenous, but we are not really the same anymore."
Foreigners who get the chance to visit North Korea - perhaps the most isolated country in the world - are often confused about the age of children. Nine-year-olds are mistaken for kindergartners and soldiers for Boy Scouts.
The North Koreans appear to be sensitive about their stature. In dealings with the outside world, the country likes to present a tall image by sending statuesque (by North Korean standards) athletes to joint sporting events in South Korea and elsewhere and assigning the tallest soldiers to patrol at the demilitarized zone that divides the two countries.
Starting in the mid-1990s, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (who reportedly wears elevator shoes to enhance his 5-3 height) ordered people to do exercises designed to make them taller. As a result, it is not uncommon to see students hanging from rings or parallel bars for as long as 30 minutes. Basketball is also promoted as a national sport to instill the yearning for height.
Seok Young Hwan, a North Korean army doctor who defected to South Korea in 1998, says the Health Ministry also ordered government research institutes to investigate herbal remedies and vitamins believed to promote growth. One popular Chinese medicine distributed to soldiers and students is made of pine tree powder and another of calcium.
Height, however, is only the outward manifestation of the problem. The more troublesome aspect of stunting is the effect on health, stamina and intelligence.
"There is a difference between being naturally small because your parents are small. That's not a problem," Seok says. "But if you're small because you weren't able to eat as a child, you are bound to be less intelligent."
About 500 North Korean children have come to South Korea, either alone or with their parents, and they are known to have difficulty keeping up in the school system, say people who work with defectors.
Although South Korea gives defectors priority in going to the best universities in a form of affirmative action, about 80 percent have ended up dropping out, Chung says.
"People assume that children are more adaptive than adults, but it is not always so. Famine is not just malnutrition, but often a long period in which education is disrupted," Chung says. "South Korea is education hell. It is very competitive, and there is no way for them to catch up."
Pak Sun Young, an anthropologist at Seoul National University who measured the children in China, says the North Korean situation has attracted considerable interest because it is the first documented case in which a homogeneous group of people have become so distinct because of nutrition and lifestyle.
Because North Korea is so secretive about statistics, it is difficult to quantify the height disparity between North and South. The anthropologists who worked in China caution that the 55 refugee children they measured are probably smaller than the children of elite party cadres in the capital, Pyongyang, who are better fed.
There is virtually no height difference among adults older than 40, who came of age at a time when the North's economy was on a par with that of the South. The trouble is most acute with those younger than 20, who were in peak growth years during the mid-1990s, when North Korea experienced a famine that is believed to have killed 2 million people - 10 percent of the population.
The World Food Program said last week that it had secured less than one-third of the 485,000 tons of food needed for North Korea this year and that it had been forced to cut off almost all its 6.5 million food aid recipients until April. Although more food is available at private markets because of economic reforms, the U.N. agency said, the prices are out of reach for most North Koreans.
Emergency intervention after the famine of the mid-1990s brought about a drastic improvement, but the situation could rapidly reverse itself, experts warn.
"We've gone from seeing six out of 10 children to four out of 10 children stunted, but that is still, medically speaking, a crisis, and the gains are not irreversible," says Masood Hyder, the United Nations' humanitarian coordinator in Pyongyang.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.