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     Sep 22, 2006
North Korea and the politics of famine
PART 1: Failure in the fields
By John Feffer

Access to food is a basic human right. For several decades, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK - North Korea) prided itself on meeting the food needs of its population, although it has little arable land. Like many socialist countries, North Korea emphasized this success - along with high literacy rates, an equitable health-care system, and guaranteed jobs for all - as proof that it upheld human rights, that its record in fact exceeded

that of Western countries.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, a deteriorating economy and a steep rise in the cost of energy, followed in mid-decade by a series of natural disasters, undercut North Korea's capacity to feed its population. The public distribution system collapsed, and famine ensued. [1] Pyongyang appealed to its neighbors and then the world at large for help.

Through the United Nations, famine relief for North Korea became a global concern. The UN's World Food Program (WFP), in the largest aid program in its history, fed more than one-third of North Korea's population. For most countries, bilateral food aid became their only significant form of engagement with the DPRK. For many aid organizations, famine relief not only equaled engagement, it represented human-rights work.

"There is no hierarchy in human rights," explained Erica Kang of the South Korean non-governmental organization (NGO) Good Friends. "But if you don't have any food on the table and your child is undernourished, the first thing on your mind is food. The right to food is one of our first priorities." [2] Food aid helped to meet the needs - and uphold the right to food - of millions of North Koreans.
The correlation between food and human rights in the DPRK has not been an altogether positive one, however. In the 1980s, human-rights organizations began to document the extent of North Korea's violations in the civil and political spheres, including political labor camps, the lack of freedom of speech and assembly, and the collective punishment of families for the crimes of an individual.

In the 1990s, these accounts became more detailed and cross-checkable via interviews with an increasing number of North Koreans in China and South Korea. The same food crisis that prompted humanitarian relief also supplied the outside world with more details of the political and social reality within the DPRK.

At this time, too, allegations surfaced regarding the diversion of food aid, the distribution of food according to political classification, and the designation of parts of the country as lost causes. Complaining that Pyongyang restricted their humanitarian operations, such groups as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and CARE pulled out of North Korea and rejected further engagement with the DPRK.

Reports in 1999 from the US General Accounting Office and the US Institute of Peace echoed these criticisms. In its first term, the administration of President George W Bush responded to concerns about inadequate monitoring by reducing US contributions to the WFP.

What had previously been two relatively separate approaches to North Korea - food aid versus human-rights criticism - have thus converged. The right to food, which humanitarian organizations emphasized in their operations, has become yet another arena in which critics have castigated Pyongyang's record. A former rationale for engagement has morphed into an argument for disengagement.

Although both the MSF and Action Contre la Faim published some materials in support of their decision to withdraw from North Korea in the late 1990s, the first major broadside in the language of food as a human-rights issue came from Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

In his February 2001 report, he penned the much-cited sentence that after 1995, "it gradually became clear that most of the international aid was being diverted by the army, the secret services, and the government". [3]

After a short interval, human-rights organizations zeroed in on the issue. Amnesty International published "Starved of Rights" in early 2004, [4] and the South Korean NGO Good Friends issued its report "North Korean Human Rights and the Food Crisis" in March of the same year. [5]

Last September, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland distilled these concerns into a report for the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. [6] Human Rights Watch followed up with "A Matter of Survival" this May. [7]

All of these reports leveled charges against the DPRK. Haggard and Noland put the charges in the strongest terms: Pyongyang was "culpably slow" in responding to the famine, did not use funds to import food during the worst of the crisis, diverted food aid away from the neediest recipients, and blocked assistance to the hardest-hit parts of the country.

North Korea is not the first place to experience the collision of human rights and humanitarianism. In international conflicts such as Kosovo and Rwanda and in other famine situations such as Biafra and Ethiopia, champions of human rights and humanitarian relief often butted heads.

Humanitarian organizations focused on delivering essential goods and services to satisfy basic human rights (to food and shelter). But they sometimes drew criticism for not addressing the situation of civil and political rights or systemic political abuses - in other words, the structures within which they had to operate.

This dilemma was both tactical (what problems should be tackled first?) and philosophical (is there a hierarchy of human rights, with food being the most important, or should all human rights, economic as well as political, be treated with equal emphasis?).

To understand this conflict between human rights and humanitarianism in North Korea, we will separate the problem into four questions:
1. Was the DPRK famine the result of unexpected external causes such as weather, unanticipated failures of state and local policy, or easily foreseeable system breakdown? This question will require analysis of North Korea's agricultural system and the difficulties it encountered in the 1980s and 1990s.
2. How can we evaluate the factual basis of the subsequent charges that North Korean officials engaged in human-rights violations in the sphere of food policy during the famine era? This question will necessitate a closer semantic scrutiny of terms such as diversion and monitoring.
3. How have agricultural and market reforms more generally altered the food-policy calculations in North Korea, particularly as they pertain to meeting the needs of the most disadvantaged? This question will spark a discussion of the relationship between famine/food aid and market mechanisms.
4. What are the policy implications of this debate about food and human rights? This discussion will lead us to an evaluation of strategies of linkage, the relationship between food aid and political change, and the current controversy over bilateral versus multilateral assistance. [8]

In answering these questions, this essay will reflect a philosophy that integrates human-rights concerns with economic engagement. Humanitarian disasters in illiberal environments require such an integrative approach.

To understand North Korea's particular dynamic, though, we must also tackle the question of power as it relates to sovereignty. Cognizant of trans-border issues such as environmental pollution, nuclear proliferation, and accelerated financial flows, most countries have relinquished a certain portion of their national sovereignty to craft global solutions to global problems. This trend has intensified since the Cold War.

The DPRK, though it belongs to several international organizations and is a party to numerous international agreements, remains locked in a Westphalian political model that stresses territorial integrity and national self-determination. Relations with other countries fall under the communist-era rubric of "peaceful co-existence". This divergence on the issue of sovereignty isolates North Korea in an increasingly globalizing era.

But the conflict is not as simple as the DPRK versus the rest of the world. Nation-states practice in essence three types of sovereignty. Employing a sovereignty of the weak, countries like North Korea use Westphalian notions as a fragile shield against challenges from the outside. Wielding a hegemonic sovereignty of the strong, the United States and other superpowers place their national interests above those of other countries and justify intervention on the basis of an assumed consensus of values such as democracy and stability. Citing a sovereignty of international law, mid-level states attempt to contain the hegemonic impulses of the strong and acquire a level playing field for the rest. Countries might deploy different understandings of sovereignty depending on the situation.

The battles between North Korea and those providing it with food aid might appear to revolve around different definitions of human rights. Beneath this surface conflict, however, is a more fundamental disagreement over sovereignty, with Pyongyang perceiving superpower designs behind the sovereignty of international law. The conflict between human rights and humanitarianism cannot be resolved without clarifying this underlying dispute about sovereignty.

Although the controversy regarding food and human rights in North Korea largely stems from matters now a decade old, the issue is all too current. Heavy rains and flooding this July have once again plunged the DPRK into a precarious food situation. Pyongyang is ambivalent about receiving international food assistance, and charges of human-rights abuses in the food realm have once again surfaced. The conflicts between international human-rights norms and conceptions of state sovereignty continue to bedevil efforts to save lives in North Korea - and have considerable implications for how the world approaches similar humanitarian crises elsewhere in a changing world system.

PART 1: Failure in the fields
Both South Korean and North Korean agriculture have roots in the Japanese model promulgated during the colonial period. About 30 years more advanced than Korea in its agricultural science, Japan applied its technological advances in seeds, irrigation, and fertilizer and pesticide use on the Korean Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century. [9]

In the post-World War II period, when the Japanese system became the initial model for the Green Revolution - on the basis of its dwarf grain varieties and reliance on high-energy inputs - both Koreas continued to use heavy applications of fertilizer and pesticide to boost yields. [10] Both countries, too, relied on mechanization to increase efficiency. Agricultural productivity came to depend on rapid industrialization. [11] Higher agricultural yields, particularly in the early years of the Cold War, were not merely a sign of the success of the farming sector but a litmus test for the very legitimacy of the respective regimes.

After a half-century of colonialism, both North and South Korea valued food self-sufficiency. For North Korea, such a goal was not an entirely unreasonable proposition. Although lacking arable land, North Korea's ratio of cropland to population is comparable to the United Kingdom's and better than those of Israel and Vietnam. More to the point, North Korea's ratio is higher than that of Japan or South Korea - 0.11 vs 0.04 and 0.05 respectively. [12] Its overall climate is colder than Japan's or South Korea's. But the region that became North Korea served as an important agricultural supplier of the Japanese Empire - specifically potatoes and millet [13] - and agriculture continues to employ about one-third of the population.

Self-sufficiency was not, however, easy for North Korea to achieve. Pyongyang often had to fall back on importing food, for instance between 1969 and 1974 and increasingly between 1986 and 1993. [14] But at some point in between, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency, the DPRK attained near self-sufficiency in grain. [15] North Korea even claimed production of 10 million tons of grain at the end of the second seven-year plan in 1984, though South Korean sources provide a more realistic figure of 6.26 million tons. [16]

In the 1970s, North Korea made two policy mistakes, one common and the other uncommon. The uncommon mistake was to continue on the path of food autarky while South Korea and Japan began to integrate themselves into the international food system. North Korea even began to deviate from the Soviet bloc.

At this time, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe went from net exporters of food to net importers as they concentrated more on manufacturing consumer products and importing enough grain to support increased livestock production. The citizens of the Soviet bloc ate higher off the hog but at the expense of their government's new dependency on international grain markets. While North Korea was willing to adapt its juche philosophy of self-reliance in the 1970s to take out loans from Western countries - largely to import technology for its industrial sector - it continued to pursue its special form of food-security policy.

The common mistake that North Korea made in the 1970s was to continue to base its agriculture on the foundation of relatively inexpensive energy. As energy became more expensive, first during the two oil crises of the 1970s and later when the Soviet Union and then China moved to hard-currency transactions, agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides as well as the fuel to power mechanized equipment became costlier. Large agricultural producers such as the United States and Canada could rely on domestic sources of energy.

North Korea had coal and hydroelectric power, but no oil or natural gas to speak of. It did not help that North Korea's farm machinery was quite energy-inefficient, that DPRK agronomists didn't recognize until 2000 the declining utility of large-scale fertilizer application, and that expanded production to marginal land contributed to wide-scale soil erosion. [17] In other words, cheap energy had concealed for some time that North Korean agriculture was ecologically unsustainable.

As a result of these two principal errors, North Korea's food problems began to accelerate. South Korean scholar Lee Suk points to the steady decline in rations in the 1970s and 1980s. [18] A foreign resident of Pyongyang reported in 1987 that "apart from grain, there is not much else to eat". [19] The 1987 allocation of wasteland for rural factory workers to use for private farming and the increased frequency of farmers' markets in the late 1980s (expanding from once every 10 days to daily) both suggest that the public distribution system was losing its capacity to meet basic needs. [20]

Heavy flooding in 1990 prompted North Korea to cut daily food rations nearly in half and for the first time to appeal to international aid organizations. [21] The "let's eat two meals a day" campaign, clearly a euphemism for greater scarcity, began in 1991. According to defectors, food riots in 1991 led to the mobilization of 4,000 Korean People's Army troops and, when the soldiers joined the rioters, 3,000 political security troops. [22] Interestingly, in response to the North Korean government's first request for aid, the WFP visited the country in 1991 and found no grounds for humanitarian relief. [23] It is tempting to speculate that the government invited the UN aid agency for economic reasons but couldn't divulge people's actual living conditions for political reasons. [24]

The end of the Cold War in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union only made matters worse, for Pyongyang could no longer leverage its geopolitical position vis-a-vis Beijing and Moscow. By the beginning of 1992, Kim Il-sung announced in his New Year's address that the year would be one of "put greater efforts into agriculture". [25]

In 1993, cold weather reduced the food supply by 500,000 tons. Hail damage in 1994 caused a 1.2 million ton reduction. [26] A poor Chinese harvest reduced 1994 exports to North Korea by half, so the DPRK turned to South Korea and Japan in 1995 for aid and commercial imports. [27] According to Andrew Natsios, North Korea also asked for food aid at this point from the United States but was told that only conditions of famine would release any shipments. [28] When the heavy rains and floods hit in 1995, famine indeed struck the country, and Pyongyang appealed to the international community for assistance. This time, the international community responded.

This historical discussion is necessary to establish several important facts. Unlike catastrophes in other planned economies, North Korea's food crisis did not originate in the decision to collectivize farms, to starve a political opposition, or to implement untested agricultural reforms. The famine resulted from a continuation of policies, not a radical departure from them. It was the sad but logical consequence of relying on high inputs of energy and striving for self-sufficiency in the interest of national security.

Pyongyang's failure to come to grips with the unsustainability of its agricultural enterprise during an era of cheap energy resembles the predicament of many nations seduced by Green Revolution promises. The second error, the policy of self-reliance, was common in East Asia in the postwar era. But the DPRK maintained an autarkic food policy - even after its communist allies abandoned theirs - influenced by the same nationalist urge to retain strict sovereignty that inspired Park Chung-hee's New Village Movement (Saemaul Undong) [29] and Japan's postwar efforts to achieve rice self-sufficiency.

Also, as Randall Ireson plausibly argues, it was not North Korea's pursuit of food self-sufficiency per se that was at issue but the way it pursued this goal. Observing environmental and economic constraints, North Korea could even today attain a measure of self-sufficiency in the agricultural sector. [30]

Although Pyongyang clearly recognized the decline in agricultural production, the effects of the natural disasters that intensified in 1995 were unexpected. The flooding and drought did not cause the famine, but they could be said to have triggered the crisis and caught government officials unprepared. As such, neither as a result of policy errors nor as a function of natural disasters can the ensuing famine be construed as a deliberate or a desired outcome for the North Korean government.

Nor can the DPRK leadership be accused of "culpable slowness" in its response to the unfolding crisis. [31] Pyongyang attempted agricultural reform, though of the too-little, too-late variety. It began to ask for international assistance as early as 1990. Its food imports rose between 1986 and 1993 to cope with shortages. It approached its traditional enemies - South Korea, Japan, and the United States - for assistance even at the risk of undermining its central doctrine of self-sufficiency.

According to a 1999 interpretation of the right to food by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, "It is important to distinguish the inability from the unwillingness of a state party to comply." [32] North Korea was willing but ultimately unable to ward off famine. If anything, it is the international community that reacted with culpable slowness, for it took two years before international donors responded on a significant scale to Pyongyang's requests. [33]

The tragedy of North Korea's food policy in the 1980s and early 1990s was not one of criminal negligence but rather of blind allegiance to the modernizing ideology of high-energy agriculture and the nationalist chimera of complete food self-sufficiency. This was bad policy. Considering that as much as 10% of the population died in the late 1990s, this was in fact atrocious policy. The question remains, however, whether placing this tragedy in a human-rights framework helps clarify the causes of the famine, the North Korean government's response to it, or international policies adopted in the aftermath. In determining causality, this framework has proved unhelpful, though the human-rights perspective does clarify other issues.

[1] There is some controversy over the use of the term "famine" to describe the food crisis that North Korea experienced in the 1990s. I use the term here to refer to "systematic starvation" as opposed to simply widespread hunger or malnutrition. As for the number of deaths attributable to this famine, it remains difficult to be precise, with figures cited anywhere between 200,000 and 3.5 million.
[2] Interview with Erica Kang, December 7, 2005.
[3] Jean Ziegler, "Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: The Right to Food", Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/2001/53, February 7, 2001.
[4] Amnesty International, "Starved of Rights: Food and Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)", January 17, 2004; accessed on the Internet April 27, 2006.
[5] "Good Friends, North Korean Human Rights and the Food Crisis" (Seoul: Good Friends, March 2004).
[6] Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, "Hunger and Human Rights: The Politics of Famine in North Korea" (Washington: US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2005). Since the Haggard/Noland report has been widely cited in the press to highlight the issue of food and human rights in North Korea, it will serve as a touchstone for much of the following discussion. The Human Rights Watch report, though more recent, is not as comprehensive.
[7] Human Rights Watch, "A Matter of Survival: The North Korean Government's Control of Food and the Risk of Hunger" (New York: Human Rights Watch, May 2006).
[8] Given space limitations, this inquiry will not evaluate a range of human-rights questions associated with the food crisis such as the situation of North Korean refugees in China and elsewhere, the upsurge in human trafficking, the tightening of restrictions on free speech, and allegations of a rise in torture and public executions.
[9] Sang-Chul Suh, Growth and Structural Changes in the Korean Economy, 1910-1940 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1978), p 37.
[10] On the importance of Japanese agricultural manuals in post-Korean War DPRK, see Balazs Szalontai, Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2005), p 167.
[11] Sanopi salaya nongopi sanda - industry must live for agriculture to live - was the expression in North Korea for the dependency of farmers on industrial inputs of energy and machinery. See L Gordon Flake and Scott Snyder, Paved with Good Intentions (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2003).
[12] Michael Schloms, North Korea and the Timeless Dilemma of Aid (Munster: Lit Verlag, 1994), p 97. North Korea has 0.11 hectare per capita compared with the United Kingdom's 0.12 and Israel's and Vietnam's 0.10. Randall Ireson calculates this ratio differently, arguing that North Korea has only 0.06 hectare of land suitable for grain and field crops per person. Even this more conservative estimate, though, puts North Korea slightly ahead of Japan and South Korea. Randall Ireson, "Food Security in North Korea: Designing Realistic Possibilities" (Stanford: Shorenstein APARC, February 2006), p 8.
[13] Robert Burnett Hall, "Agricultural Region of Asia, Part VII - the Japanese Empire", Economic Geography, Vol 11, No 1, January 1935, p 51.
[14] Wonhyuk Lim, "North Korea's Food Crisis", Korea and World Affairs, Winter 1997, p 577.
[15] Tai Sung An, North Korea: A Political Handbook (Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, Inc, 1983), p 129.
[16] North Korea Business Fact Book (Seoul: Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, 2001), p 37.
[17] Ireson, Food Security in North Korea. On the soil-erosion issue, see also Meredith Woo-Cumings, The Political Economy of Famine: The North Korean Catastrophe and Its Lessons (Tokyo: Asian Development Bank, January 2002).
[18] Human Rights Watch, "A Matter of Survival", p 8.
[19] Andrew Holloway, A Year in Pyongyang, unpublished manuscript.
[20] Jae Kyu Park, North Korea in Transition and Policy Choices: Domestic Structure and External Relations (Seoul: Kyungnam University Press, 1999), pp 115, 118. According to Good Friends, the markets returned to once every 10 days in 1992, as the government sought to reassert control, only to revert again to daily in 1993 ("Good Friends, North Korean Human Rights and the Food Crisis", p 36).
[21] Marina Ye Trigubenko, "Economic Characteristics and Prospect for Development: With Emphasis on Agriculture", in Han S Park ed, North Korea: Ideology, Politics, Economy (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996), p 156.
[22] Jae-Jean Suh, "North Korea's Social System", in Tae Hwan Ok and Hong Yung Lee, eds, Prospects for Change in North Korea (Seoul: Research Institute for National Unification, 1994), p 247.
[23] Andrew Natsios, The Great North Korean Famine (Washington: US Institute for Peace, 2001), p 166.
[24] Marcus Noland argues that Pyongyang at this time "did not act in the way of a responsible government in the middle of a food crisis". There is some truth to this assertion, though it does not take into account the various departments of the North Korean government and their differing motivations. Interview with Marcus Noland, February 13, 2006.
[25] Andrea Savada, ed, North Korea: A Country Study (Washington: Library of Congress, 1994), p 139.
[26] Sung-wook Nam, "Feeding the People: Possible Agricultural Normalization in North Korea", East Asian Review, Vol 14, No 3, Autumn 2002, p 92.
[27] Lim, North Korea's Food Crisis, p 580.
[28] Natsios, The Great North Korean Famine, p 141.
[29] John Feffer, Korean Food, Korean Identity: The Impact of Globalization on Korean Agriculture (Stanford: Shorenstein APARC, February 2005).
[30] Ireson, Food Security in North Korea.
[31] The Human Rights Watch report also develops this theme: "After a long period of unnecessary suffering, the government of Kim Jong-il belatedly allowed the limited opening of North Korea to foreign food aid ..." Human Rights Watch, "A Matter of Survival", p 1.
[32] Ibid, p 27.
[33] Interview with aid worker, December 9, 2005; see also Schloms, North Korea and the Timeless Dilemma of Aid, p 155.

John Feffer is the co-director of FPIF.

This series of articles was produced under the auspices of a research project sponsored by the Sejong Institute. It will be published in book form this year.

(Posted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus)

PART 2: Human rights violations

Two Koreas: A beehive and a desert (Sep 21, '06)

Roaring mouse vs squeaking lion (Aug 12, '06)

North Korea enjoys Southern makeover (Aug 11, '06)


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