|North Koreans starved of right to
By Jim Lobe
North Korea has been using food as an instrument of
political and economic control, says a major new report
by Amnesty International.
While the country has
been unable to produce enough food for all of its
citizens since the collapse of the Soviet Union more
than 10 years ago, food supplies - both from domestic
sources and from foreign aid - have been distributed
primarily according to citizens' membership in three
"classes", apparently based on loyalty to the state.
The three categories - also said to determine
who receives other benefits, such as access to education
and residence permits - are "core", "wavering", and
"hostile". The last class of hostile citizens represents
about one-quarter of the country's 23 million people,
says the report, released on Monday.
[hostile] group's institutionalized lower status, their
enforced geographical location and restrictions on
movement all inhibit their access to food," says the
42-page document, "Starved of Rights".
of thousands of people have died as a result of acute
food shortages caused by a series of natural disasters,
the loss of support from the former Soviet Union and
economic mismanagement," it adds. "Several million
children suffer from chronic malnutrition, impairing
their physical and mental development."
Korean authorities have also publicly executed
individuals for stealing food necessary to their
survival, the report says. In some cases, schoolchildren
have been forced to witness the killings as a form of
education, it notes, adding that reports of executions
have diminished in recent years.
which is based on the testimonies of refugees, reports
by humanitarian agencies that have worked in North Korea
and other sources, comes during the ongoing crisis over
the country's alleged nuclear-weapons program and
demands by the administration of US President George W
Bush that the program be totally and verifiably
Bush, who named Pyongyang two years
ago as part of an "axis of evil" that also included Iraq
and Iran, has rejected North Korean demands that
Washington first sign a non-aggression treaty before it
halts its nuclear program. Negotiations to reconcile the
two positions have thus far proved inconclusive.
Bush, who refuses to renounce the use of force
in dealing with North Korea's nuclear program, has also
cited reports of widespread famine, as well as harsh
repression against suspected dissidents, for his
"loath[ing]" of Pyongyang's leader, Kim Jong-il.
Famine reportedly killed up to 3 million in
Various sources contend that famine killed
between half a million and 3 million North Koreans
during the 1990s.
Nonetheless, Washington has
been the biggest single supplier of food aid to North
Korea in recent years.
After an urgent appeal
for US$171 million by the United Nations World Food
Program (WFP) last month, the US administration
announced that it will add some 60,000 tonnes of food
aid to the 40,000 tonnes it contributed earlier in 2003
to help the isolated Hermit Kingdom survive the harsh
Bolstering the decision was a
report by WFP executive director James Morris that
Pyongyang had made tracking the distribution and use of
food aid somewhat easier over the past year. But the
same report noted that about 41 percent of North Korean
children under the age of seven suffered severe
malnutrition in 2002, and that rations this year were
expected to be further reduced in the absence of
increased food aid.
Despite the additional US
contribution, the WFP has warned that aid to as much as
10 percent of North Korea's population might be cut off
from food supplies.
The Amnesty International
report argues that the right to food must be considered
a basic human right - on a par with political and civil
rights - under a number of international covenants, and
that governments thus have a duty to feed their people.
In order to do so, says Amnesty, which is best
known for its defense of political prisoners, Pyongyang
must ensure that humanitarian organizations, especially
UN agencies such as the WFP, be given "free and
unimpeded access to all parts" of North Korea.
Some charities depart, citing unfair
A number of prominent relief groups,
including Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders (Medecins
Sans Frontieres), have withdrawn from North Korea,
citing inadequate access and the inability to ensure
that their aid supplies are equitably distributed.
Other groups, such as Caritas International and
Germany's Agro Aid, as well as the WFP and the UN
Children's Fund (UNICEF), have continued to work there,
citing what Amnesty called "slow and fitful
improvements" in gaining access to distribution sites
and the operations of the government's Public
Distribution System. The distribution system is the
agency that distributes most of the food, albeit in ways
that, according to some sources, reinforce the
government's political, regional and social biases.
Subsidized rations in North Korea are
distributed on a gram-per-day-per-person basis,
according to an individual's occupation and status.
Before the 1995-98 famine, about 60 percent of the
population received more than 700 grams per day each.
The famine was brought on by a combination of flooding
and drought and the lack of fertilizer, oil and other
imports traditionally supplied by the Soviet Union.
At the famine's height in 1997, only 6 percent
of the population was receiving food through the Public
Distribution System. Since then, the food allocations
have risen steadily, reaching 319g of food per person by
last September. A ration of 300g of cereal per person
per day is considered less than half a survival ration.
In addition, last June's recognition by the
government of previously illegal farmers' markets, which
had sprung up in the early 1990s, has increased overall
food supplies, although not enough to reduce appreciably
the country's dependence on foreign aid.
addition, rice and maize prices in the private markets
were reportedly three to three and a half times as great
as public distribution prices, putting them largely
beyond the reach of poor North Koreans, particularly
those living in cities.
punished for stealing food
In addition to the
political categories that determine food allocations,
the right to food is also compromised by the country's
draconian restrictions on freedom of movement, Amnesty
reports. These curbs have made it impossible for
starving people to move to more productive areas or even
to forage for food beyond their communities' borders
without risking severe sanctions, including being sent
to labor camps, where they also risk starvation and
torture, says Amnesty.
Starvation is also
responsible for the steady exodus of North Koreans into
China, where they also risk detention and forcible
repatriation. Amnesty says it has received reports of
executions carried out against some who crossed the
border to seek food, as well as against those who
committed other hunger-related crimes, such as stealing
crops or livestock.
While public executions have
reportedly ended, Amnesty says it still receives reports
of executions taking place secretly in detention
The lack of access to food has had the
greatest impact on children, because of both
malnutrition and the loss of parents who have died of
malnutrition or related illness. Unconfirmed reports
have said hundreds of orphans are now living in
institutions or have become street children, without
access to food aid or state protection.
have also suffered disproportionately in the famine,
largely because traditional Korean gender roles assign
to them the responsibility for gathering food. Many have
been forced to turn to prostitution to feed themselves
and their families, while others are being trafficked to
China, where they are sold to ethnic-Korean farmers, the
(Inter Press Service)