North Korea has been using food as an instrument
of political and economic control, says a
major new report by Amnesty International (AI).
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
– from domestic sources and in the form of foreign aid – have been distributed
primarily according to citizens' membership in three "classes," apparently
based on loyalty to the state.
The categories, also said to determine who receives many other benefits in
North Korea – such as access to education and residence permits – include ''core'',
''wavering'', and ''hostile'', the last class representing about one-quarter
of the country's 23 million people, says the report, released Monday.
''This group's institutionalized lower status, their enforced geographical
location and restrictions on movement all inhibit their access to food'', according
to the 42-page document, 'Starved of Rights'.
''Hundreds 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."
North 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, it notes, adding that reports of executions
have diminished in recent years.
The study, which is based on the testimonies of refugees, reports by humanitarian
agencies that have worked in North Korea and other sources, comes amid an ongoing
crisis over the country's alleged nuclear-weapons program and demands by the
administration of U.S. President George W. Bush that the program be totally
and verifiably dismantled.
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. Negotiations to reconcile the two positions
have thus far proven inconclusive.
Bush, who also has refused 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.
Various sources contend that famine killed between half a million and three
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 171 million dollars by the United Nations World
Food Program last month, the administration announced it will add some 60,000
metric tonnes of food aid to the 40,000 tonnes it gave earlier in the year to
help the country get through the harsh winter months.
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 stepped up food aid.
Despite the additional US contribution, WFP has warned that aid to as much
as 10 percent of North Korea's population might be cut off.
The Amnesty 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
In order to do so, AI, which is better known for its defense of political prisoners,
says Pyongyang must ensure that humanitarian organizations, in particular U.N.
agencies like WFP, be given ''free and unimpeded access to all parts'' of North
A number of prominent relief groups, including Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders
(Medicins 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 WSF and 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.
PDS 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, brought on by a combination of flooding and drought
and the lack of fertilizer, oil and other imports traditionally supplied by
the Soviet Union, about 60 percent of the population received more than 700
grams per day.
At the famine's height in 1997, the PDS was supplying only six percent of the
The allocations have risen steadily since then, reaching 319 grams of food
per person by last September. In addition, last June's recognition by the government
of previously illegal farmers' markets, which sprung up in the early 1990s,
has increased overall food supplies, although not enough to appreciably reduce
the country's dependence on foreign aid.
In addition, rice and maize prices in the private markets were reportedly three
to 3.5 times greater than PDS prices, putting them largely beyond the reach
of poor North Koreans, particularly those residing in cities.
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.
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 had 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 said it still receives
reports of executions taking place secretly in detention centers.
The lack of access to food has had the greatest impact on children, both because
of malnutrition, as well as the loss of parents.
Unconfirmed reports said hundreds of orphans are now living in institutions
or have become street children without access to food aid or state protection.
Women have also suffered disproportionately, largely because traditional Korean
gender roles assigns 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 report adds.
(Inter Press Service)