A Matter of Survival: The North Korean government's control of food and the risk of hunger
I personally know about fifteen people who died of hunger. In the case of an acquaintance of mine, her entire family died. There were so many deaths; we got used to seeing dead bodies everywhere -- at train stations, on the streets. The year 1997 was the worst, and then things got better, because everyone began selling stuff at markets. That's how we all survived. (Ms. Kim, escapee from North Korea in 2005)
In the mid to late 1990s North Koreans experienced a famine that killed an estimated one million people, or about 5 percent of the population. Hundreds of thousands of others fled to China to find food for themselves and their families. Many who survived suffered long-lasting or permanent damage to their health. Although conditions in North Korea have improved since that time, the North Korean government seems today to be reverting to many of the policies that contributed to the famine.
The famine in the 1990s resulted from a deadly combination of factors: the state's monopoly on food and its discriminatory distribution to favored classes of the population, particularly cadres of the ruling (North) Korea Workers Party and high-ranking military, intelligence, and police officers; the degradation of the country's agricultural capacity; and environmental disasters, such as drought and flooding, that contributed to a series of poor harvests. Underlying and exacerbating this were some of the world's most severe restrictions on basic rights, such as freedom of expression, association, information, and movement, which made it impossible to publicly complain, discuss, debate, or disseminate information about food problems. These restrictions remain in place.
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, tacitly accepted private distribution of food through market sales, and tolerated greater, albeit unofficial, freedom of movement as people were finally allowed to go in search of food or the funds to pay for it. It is unclear if these reforms resulted from a concern for the welfare of North Koreans or fears of political instability from a more and more restive population.
The government in Pyongyang now seems to be reversing course. In September 2005, North Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Su-Hon asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to discontinue the World Food Programme's (WFP) emergency food assistance to North Korea by the end of the year. Choe cited a good harvest as the reason for the request, said food aid "cannot go on forever," and accused donor countries led by the United States of trying to "politicize humanitarian assistance, linking it to the human rights issue."(1) When saying that food aid "cannot go on forever," Choe apparently was excluding the large and indispensable amounts of food aid still provided by South Korea and China, which do not insist on rigorous monitoring of how the food is distributed. At the same time, North Korea asked WFP, which had been feeding millions of the nation's most vulnerable people for a decade, to end emergency food aid and focus on long-term development aid. The WFP said there continue to be short-term food needs, as well as medium- and long-term needs.(2) Pyongyang also asked most resident humanitarian agencies in North Korea to wrap up their operations and leave.
Effective on October 1, 2005, the government again banned the private buying and selling of grain, the main source of nutrition for most North Koreans. It sent instructions to normalize the nation's rationing system, called the Public Distribution System (PDS), which has been barely functioning since the mid-1990s, to all cities and counties, and followed up with meetings with provincial officials in the same month. WFP later confirmed the implementation of the instructions in several periodic reports on its operations inside North Korea.
North Korea has long used rationing as a means to control its population. By banning people from buying and selling grain, it has forced them to rely on the state for their most basic needs. Until the food crisis in the 1990s, the PDS had been the only legal means of obtaining food and most other goods in North Korea's command economy for more than forty years. Under this system, North Koreans could generally only receive state ration coupons through their places of work or study. Even during the famine of the 1990s, when most North Koreans began to obtain much of their food on the private market, the PDS officially continued to be the primary provider of food. Since the famine, the PDS has provided only a small portion of the food most North Koreans consume, and has become significantly less important.
The reversion to the PDS as the sole means by which the population can legally obtain grain is particularly worrisome, as a critical cause of the famine was the failure of the PDS to deliver food to large segments of the population. In the past, the authorities have implemented the system in a discriminatory manner, distributing food and other goods to elites and preferred citizens while others went without. The government has a long history of distributing food first to trusted citizens, stocking some as part of its "war-preparation storage," and only then distributing the rest through the PDS, even if some or many North Koreans go hungry in the process.
While North Korea enjoyed a good harvest in 2005 and receives substantial food aid from South Korea and China, there are no grounds for complacency about the food situation in North Korea. Even before the famine of the 1990s, the vast majority of North Koreans suffered from a deficit of food. Now, under improved circumstances, many still do. WFP's most recent nutritional survey shows that many children under the age of six still have poor nutritional status; a significant percentage meets the criteria for a severe health concern. Among children under six they surveyed, 37 percent were stunted (too short for their age), 23.4 percent were underweight; and 7 percent were wasted. A report by WFP in late 2005 shows that following the government's decision to fully reinstate the PDS, some households surveyed by WFP staff were receiving far less food than the average target ration of 500 grams per person per day, an amount nutritional experts regard as the minimum to maintain a normal level of health.
Human Rights Watch takes no position on whether North Korea should have a market economy. But it is clear from the devastating famine and pervasive hunger of the past -- -- well documented by the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) -- -- that the PDS and the country's official food industry miserably failed North Koreans. Huge numbers of North Koreans died painful deaths from starvation when the PDS failed, and there is no reason to believe that North Korea is now capable of providing adequate food to all its citizens through the PDS without discrimination.
Hunger in North Korea has a strong state policy dimension. While topography and environment surely contributed to the famine of the 1990s, a critical factor was the government's willingness to sacrifice the rights -- and lives -- of those it perceives as disloyal or class enemies. North Korea is one of the most closed societies in the world. Free speech is unknown, and even well-intentioned criticism of the policies that produced so much suffering can be severely punished.
Human Rights Watch urges North Korea not to revert to the PDS as the only legal means of feeding its people. It must not close off avenues for obtaining food outside the discriminatory and inadequate state rationing mechanism. Foreign aid has proven effective in ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable are met. Private farmers' markets have helped alleviate the problem of supply, saving many from starvation (a survey by the South Korean aid organization Good Friends in 2000 found that 100 percent of the 1,027 North Koreans who responded said that the existence of farmers' markets helped their livelihood). These may not be the only solutions -- food experts and economists may be able to suggest others -- -- but they may be the only available short-term options for ensuring that large segments of society are not once again pitched into starvation or life-damaging nutritional inadequacy.
The right to be free from hunger is not only a core humanitarian concern, but also a human rights imperative. Although it has espoused a policy of extreme self-reliance and isolation from the world, North Korea has also joined the keystone international treaties that make up a universal bill of rights. It is bound by international law to dedicate available resources -- including available foreign aid -- to ensure its population's right to adequate food.
The international community has recognized the right to adequate food and to the highest attainable standard of health in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which North Korea is a party. This right is so fundamental to human dignity that the U.N. body responsible for interpreting and evaluating compliance under the treaty has required even the poorest countries to commit themselves to providing a minimum level of food to the extent of their available resources, including available foreign aid.
Moreover, states are obliged to ensure that the rights to food and health are guaranteed without discrimination of any kind as to political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. If it is to comply with its treaty obligations, the government of North Korea must not rely on a distribution system which is designed to reward loyalty to the state and punish those who are perceived as less politically deserving of state protection. At the very least, North Korea should accept WFP's new offer of assisting 1.9 million of the country's most vulnerable people. If it does this, and distributes all available food equally and fairly, in the short term the country may be able to curtail hunger and avoid another devastating famine should future harvests fail.
North Korea rarely publishes reliable data on basic facts of life in the country. In the few exceptional cases when it does so, the data is often limited, inconsistent, or otherwise of questionable utility. North Korea almost never allows foreigners to conduct research in the country. The research for this report was carried out in the context of these limitations.
Human Rights Watch consulted a variety of sources for insights into North Korea's food situation, taking into account the sources' expertise, experience, and access to North Korea. Human Rights Watch interviewed North Koreans who resettled in South Korea, economists, food experts, and officials from aid agencies and the South Korean government. It also reviewed documents from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), WFP, and other reports by U.N. agencies, South Korean researchers, and international analysts.(3)
Human Rights Watch does not have access to people inside North Korea who could give firsthand accounts of current developments. This, of course, is because it is North Korean government policy to keep conditions inside the country secret from the rest of the world, even when information would lead to desperately needed assistance. Human Rights Watch did, however, interview North Koreans in South Korea who described their personal experiences before, during, and after the famine of the 1990s. Except for one North Korean interviewee who is well known for his work as a human rights activist, only the last names of interviewees are used in this report to protect their families in North Korea.
(1) "North Korea Rejects U.N. Food Aid," BBC News Online, September 23, 2005.
(2) As of this writing in late March 2006, the two sides had yet to reach agreement on WFP's future work in North Korea.
(3) It is difficult to obtain accurate data on North Korea's grain production. The FAO/WFP, the United States Department of Agriculture, and South Korea's Rural Development Administration publish the only reliable data sets, though each uses a different approach. The three sets of data roughly correlate, particularly with respect to trends in grain production. The data from FAO/WFP divides yearly production in November-October periods, rather than January-December periods. Those figures include projected production, although they are subsequently updated. As a result of North Korea's demand that WFP end emergency food aid at the end of 2005, WFP and FAO were not allowed in the country to carry out a production assessment survey in 2005. The United States Department of Agriculture's data includes only major grain such as rice, maize, wheat, and barley produced in cooperative farms, and omits other grain produced at cooperative and private farming lands. South Korea's Rural Development Administration estimates the amount of all grain produced at both cooperative and individual farms, analyzes production after harvest, and has been consistently releasing data for decades.
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