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January 22, 2004

North Korea Executing Starving People for Stealing Food

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 (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 people.

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 Korea.

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 population.

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)


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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