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(Seoul) - Recent decisions by the North Korean government to suspend the operation of the World Food Programme, ban the private sale of grain, and fully reinstate the discredited Public Distribution System could lead to renewed hunger for North Korea’s already poor and destitute people, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 34-page report, “A Matter of Survival: The North Korean Government’s Control of Food and the Risk of Hunger,” examines recent worrisome developments in North Korea’s food policies, its marginalization of the World Food Programme (WFP), its refusal to allow adequate monitoring of food aid, and the implications of the government’s new policies. Human Rights Watch noted that only a decade ago, similar policies led to the famine that killed anywhere from 580,000 to more than 3 million, according to independent researchers and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

“While most international discussion of North Korea is about nuclear weapons, hunger remains a serious problem,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Regressive policies from a government that doesn’t allow free expression or independent observers to monitor the situation could someday lead to a repeat of the food crisis of the 1990s.”

In October 2005, North Korea reversed some of its most applauded economic reforms by banning the private buying and selling of grain, the main source of nutrition for most North Koreans. The government asked the WFP, which had been feeding millions of the nation’s most vulnerable people for a decade, to end emergency food aid. The agency believes the request is premature, and proposed a new, considerably smaller aid package. The North Korean government had not formally accepted the offer as of the end of April.

The government also announced in October that it was fully reinstating the Public Distribution System (PDS), which provided coupons for food and consumer goods to North Koreans through their places of work or study. During the food crisis of the 1990s, millions of people who depended on their PDS rations died from starvation. Many more suffered severe malnutrition and hunger as the system broke down. The crisis ended by massive amounts of international food aid and the tolerance of private markets, helped in recent years by improved harvests.

“Forcing the World Food Programme to radically reduce its food shipments and monitoring, and making it illegal for ordinary North Koreans to buy and sell grain, is a recipe for disaster,” said Adams.

Recent news reports suggest that North Koreans in many parts of the country were not receiving rations, six months after the authorities announced they were fully reinstating the PDS. A Chinese man of Korean descent who recently visited his relatives in the northeastern part of North Korea told Human Rights Watch that none of the five homes he visited had received any rations since November 2005. “They received half a month’s worth of corn for the months of October and November, but that was it,” he said. “And that, I heard, was only for working men, and nobody else in the families.”

The South Korean NGO Good Friends also reported in the April edition of its monthly newsletter, North Korea Today, that residents of Pyongyang received only 10 days of food rations in April. Citing an unnamed official at Pyongyang’s food management administration, the report said that in May there would be no rations at all.

North Korea has a long history of providing food on a priority basis, feeding the preferred class, such as Workers’ Party members and high-ranking military, intelligence and police officers, while discriminating against the so-called hostile class. If past patterns hold true this year, the government will first send food to “war-preparation storage” and preferred citizens, and only then to the general public through the PDS, leaving many North Koreans hungry.

Until the famine in the 1990s, food rationing was perhaps the single most important way of controlling the population in North Korea. As people could receive rations only from their place of work or study, the system largely kept the population immobile and obedient, so that they wouldn’t risk losing their only source of food.

“The government is apparently trying to turn back the clock to regain some of the control lost when it allowed people greater freedom to move around and buy grain,” said Adams. “The government should reverse its new policies, which make it harder for hungry people to find the food they need to survive and stay healthy.”

The government should prioritize assisting the vulnerable population by providing aid to those who can’t obtain food through their work. North Korea should allow international monitors unfettered access to beneficiaries. Major food donors, including China and South Korea, should monitor distribution of their aid in a way that meets international standards as employed by the WFP.

Human Rights Watch urged the North Korean government to:

  • Allow international humanitarian agencies, including the WFP, to resume necessary food supply operations and to properly monitor aid according to normal international protocols for transparency and accountability;
  • Ensure its distribution system is both fair and adequately supplied, or permit citizens to obtain food in alternative ways, through direct access to markets or humanitarian aid; and
  • End discrimination in the distribution of food in favor of high-ranking Workers’ Party officials, military, intelligence and police officers, and against the “hostile” class deemed politically disloyal to the government and Party.

Human Rights Watch takes no position on whether countries should have market or command economies. But it is clear from the devastating famine and pervasive hunger of the past – well documented by the United Nations and NGOs – that the PDS and the country’s official food industry have miserably failed North Koreans.

“Millions of North Koreans died painful deaths from starvation while the rationing system was in place,” said Adams. “There is little reason to believe the North Korean government is now capable of providing enough food to all its citizens.”

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