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III. Past Problems of Famine and Hunger

North Korea’s famine and hunger were closely linked to its agricultural and economic policies. Since its creation in 1948, the DPRK has employed a command economy in which its citizens have been largely unable to engage in private economic activities. Through the Public Distribution System, which was created in the 1950s, the government has taken all domestically harvested crops from cooperative farms, except for portions allocated to farmers for their own consumption. It has then distributed the crops according to its priorities—in favor of high-ranking Workers Party officials, military, intelligence and police officers, and against individuals deemed politically disloyal to the government and Party (the “hostile” class, to use the rhetoric of the North Korean government). Foodstuffs and consumer products were obtained at state supply centers using coupons.5

The PDS has not been able to effectively deliver sufficient food to North Korea’s population for decades. According to Lee Suk, a South Korean expert on the North Korean economy and author of a definitive book on North Korea’s famine, the ration for white-collar office workers gradually decreased from 700 grams per day in the 1960s to 608 grams in 1973 and 547 grams in 1987.6 As Lee Min Bok, a fifty-year old former researcher from North Korea’s state institute of agriculture who made his way to South Korea in 1995, described the situation to Human Rights Watch:

Except for the elite class, no matter what your occupation was, your access to food was more or less the same. In other words, pretty much everyone was always short of food. Researchers, professors, and other educated people were not an exception. Even if you got paid more than farmers, if your salary bought you only a few days’ worth of food each month, it didn’t mean much. As for the rations, until the early 1980s, people did receive rations, although they gradually replaced much of the rice ration with corn, and the amount decreased over time. Starting in mid-1980s, they began delaying distribution of rations. By late 1980s, delays became normal.”7

In the past, the goods distributed through the PDS were supplemented by aid and food imports from China and the Soviet Union. But in the early 1990s North Korea faced a financial crisis when it lost most of its trading partners following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Its already ill-equipped and mismanaged agriculture sector suffered another blow when a shortage of energy reduced the production rate of chemical fertilizer factories, among others. The country subsequently endured a series of natural disasters, including floods and droughts.8

By the mid-1990s, the amount of food distributed through the PDS across the country was so limited that North Koreans had to find alternative sources of food or starve. Many people who had been completely dependent on the PDS died of hunger or hunger-related diseases. In 1995, North Korea publicly asked for international food assistance.9 In an unusual official revelation about conditions inside the country, in May 1999 Jon In Chan, an official with the state Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee, released figures showing a 37 percent increase in deaths between 1995 and 1998, which news media said meant that the famine would have killed about 220,000 North Koreans during that time, or 1 percent of the population.10 This was the first official statement indicating the scale of the catastrophe. Estimates by independent researchers and aid workers suggest a wide range of numbers of deaths—anywhere from 600,000 to 1.2 million to three million.11 Many demographic and economic experts use one million as a reasonable estimate.

Accounts of this period are chilling. Ms. Kim, a North Korean who escaped the country in May 2005, told Human Rights Watch she received no government rations through the PDS from 1996 until she escaped. She worked as a sales person at a trading company, which sold seafood to Chinese merchants and bought rice and other necessities. Because her company directly dealt with food trade, she had access to enough food to survive. Her mother worked at a farmers’ market and earned money by selling fabric, buttons, and zippers. She said that her family largely avoided hunger, but many neighbors suffered from hunger, and some died during the famine:

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.

In addition to the inadequate amounts of food delivered through the PDS, many North Korean escapees have claimed that rations were distributed on a discriminatory basis, first to elite residents in Pyongyang—such as members of the political leadership and their families, and preferred classes, such as high-ranking members of the Workers’ Party, military, intelligence, police officers, prosecutors and other law-enforcement personnel—and only then to the rest of the country.12 This meant the non-elite classes received not only far less food than needed during the food crisis in the 1990s, but proportionally little compared to the elite and preferred classes.13

The government also failed to discharge its responsibility to adequately feed those under its care, such as prisoners. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, the amount of grain provided to prisoners through the PDS equaled that for children between two and four years old (200 grams per day) under an old food rations scheme.14 (A chart showing the amount of food rations under the old rationing system can be found in the appendix.) Nutritional experts believe an adult needs at least 500 grams of grain per day to maintain a normal level of health. Conditions for prisoners were made worse since the vast majority of prisoners in North Korea are subjected to hard labor and therefore burn calories at a greater rate than the average person. Former North Korean prisoners have repeatedly testified to independent researchers that a severe shortage of food was as hard to bear as harsh mistreatment they suffered in detention facilities, and many prisoners supplemented their meager rations with snakes, rats, and insects.15 These accounts show that North Korea not only institutionalized discrimination in access to food, but also used food as a way to reward and punish the population.

Even some of those presumably in position to receive better rations, including soldiers and members of the elite class, suffered from food shortages during the famine, and to some degree even to date. Mr. Lim, who was a soldier at the time of his escape in March 2005, told Human Rights Watch that common soldiers also had faced hunger. His unit, which was assigned to work at a power plant in Hwanghae City, had a serious shortage of food. They received proper rations only on major holidays such as Kim Il Sung’s and Kim Jong Il’s birthdays. On other days, he received about “three spoonfuls” of grain per meal. About a half dozen of the men in his unit died of malnutrition, while many others were sent home as they became too weak to work. The number of soldiers in his unit dwindled from one hundred in mid-2002 to about ten in mid-2004. Before he served in the unit, he knew about a dozen people in his neighborhood who died of hunger. Lim escaped from North Korea after his mother left for China.16

You know they were hungry. And then you don’t see them for a while. Eventually, someone finds them dead in their own home. That was quite typical. And then there were those who died on the street, after wandering around to find food. There were so many dead people that the authorities often couldn’t find surviving families, so they would bury them in fives or tens in hills, without even coffins.17

Mr. Han, who escaped North Korea in 2000, suffered from hunger despite his elite status as a state intelligence official and resident of Pyongyang. He continued to receive 700 grams of grain per day, but his parents did not work, and received no rations, and the three of them had to share his. His family was still better off than many others: two of three families he knew had at least one family member who died of hunger, was gravely ill, or disappeared while seeking food.isHis18

I was spending most of my days trying to get more food for my family. We sold everything—wooden chest, rare books, everything. Our rice container was often empty. But there were so many people selling furniture, and very few selling food, I couldn’t get much money out of selling things. I had never imagined such hunger before. It was miserable.

The government’s intolerance of even implicit criticism of its policies contributed to the impending crisis. Mr. Lee Min Bok, the former researcher at North Korea’s state institute of agriculture mentioned above, told Human Rights Watch that he had developed quality corn seeds to boost production. However, in early 1990 he was reprimanded for “reactionary” ideas after proposing to higherups to introduce market principles to North Korea’s agriculture after an experiment he conducted in which farmers who were allowed to keep their produce yielded far more than those who were not. He escaped North Korea in November 1990, before the food crisis hit the country.19

Food Aid

In 1995, North Korea took the belated step of appealing to the international community for emergency food aid. Donors moved quickly and delivered food aid worth more than U.S.$2 billion between 1996 and 2005. During this period, the WFP fed up to a third of the North Korean population, prioritizing young children, nursing and pregnant women, and the elderly.20

Throughout the period, North Korea imposed restrictions on monitoring of aid distribution by WFP staff. It limited access to recipients and those not served by food programs, limited the areas that could be visited and the frequency of monitoring visits, and generally provided sparse information about the needs of its people to donors. North Korea banned WFP completely from visiting forty-three out of 203 counties, or  13 percent of the North Korean population, citing security reasons. Sometimes, North Korea banned access to areas WFP previously visited, or lifted such bans again without a clear explanation.21 North Korean escapees have suggested the restrictions stemmed from the presence in the affected areas of military installations, factories, research centers, nuclear facilities and political prisoner camps, among other such facilities.22

Even in areas which WFP had obtained permission to visit, staff members had to give notice a week in advance. They could not select interviewees at random, which compromised their ability to conduct objective assessments of whether food aid was actually going to the intended persons. WFP officials have routinely acknowledged that, despite improvements in recent years, the level of access in North Korea has not been as good as in other countries in which it operates.

International relief agency Medecins sans Frontières (MSF) withdrew from North Korea in September 1998, citing restrictions on access to certain areas in North Korea and its concern that food aid was being distributed to loyalists of the regime rather than to vulnerable individuals.23 “Humanitarian assistance can only help those who need it when it is impartial and accountable. This is not the case in North Korea,” said Dr. Eric Goemaere, then Director-General of MSF, in a statement.24

In November 2005, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it would suspend delivery of the balance of its food aid commitment to the DPRK (25,000 tons) in response to reports that WFP would be forced to end food distribution and monitoring activities. The statement said that without a WFP operation in place, including a full complement of international staff, there would be no way to even minimally assure that the USAID food aid reached its intended recipients.25

North Korean escapees and media accounts have reported sacks of rice from the United States, Japan, and South Korea being sold at markets.26 A North Korean man who resettled in South Korea after working for ten years at a grain administration office which handled grain purchase and distribution, told South Korean researchers that the grain provided by foreign sources was distributed mainly to high-ranking government officials.27 A WFP statement in February 2006 hinted that donors other than the United States also had expressed concerns about the WFP’s ability to reach people in need and monitor distribution of food aid, although it did not name the donors.28

Private Food Trade

By the mid-1990s many North Koreans, such as Mr. Han above, began engaging in private economic activities, largely in the form of barter, at both officially sanctioned markets and illegal, black markets. Farmers who privately grew grain and vegetables or raised stock animals outside cooperative farms, such as in small kitchen gardens or steep hillsides and other areas previously considered too barren or inaccessible for agricultural purposes, became major suppliers of food. Some escaped to China, bought food and returned to sell it at domestic farmers’ markets, partially filling the gap between supply and demand.

For its part, by the late 1990s, North Korea made its ration system less rigid. The central government allowed provincial governments to engage in food trading, which had been its exclusive domain, allocated farmland to factories and urban households and not just to cooperative farms, and largely turned a blind eye to private food trading by individuals.29 North Korea’s domestic grain production began slowly increasing, thanks largely to international fertilizer aid, but also its own reform measures. According to South Korea’s Rural Development Administration, North Korea’s domestic grain production increased by 15 percent from 2000 to 2005.

In July 2002, North Korea officially announced economic reform measures, including legalizing some of the existing markets, adjusting commodity prices and wages, and ending subsidies to failing state enterprises. In the agricultural sector, the measures included implementing family-based farming units in some cooperative farms, allowing farmers to choose their own crops to grow, and expanding the permissible size of private farming land.30

These measures were welcomed by many as a sign that North Korea was willing to take the necessary steps towards economic reform, but the government failed to follow up with further reforms. Meanwhile, many North Koreans also suffered from unintended side effects of the reforms, such as a high inflation rate under which food prices continued to rise exponentially. The market price for crops in September 2004 was five to eight times higher than it had been in July 2002. Wages rose somewhat, but not enough to match steep price hikes.31 Many North Korean workers became jobless following the closure of state-run enterprises, some losing their only source of income and food.

[5] White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea 2005, Korea Institute for National Unification, April 2005, pp 201-226.

[6] Lee Suk, The DPRK Famine of 1994-2000, Korea Institute for National Unification, December 2004.

[7] Human Rights Watch interview with Mr. Lee Min Bok, Seoul, February 2, 2006.

[8] Starved of Rights: Human Rights and the Food Crisis in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Amnesty International, January 2004.

[9] “North Korea, Admitting Food Shortages, Asks Japan for Rice,” The Associated Press, May 26, 1995.

[10] “North Korea Admits Its Famine Killed Hundreds of Thousands,” The Associated Press, May 9, 1999.

[11] Good Friends, a South Korean NGO that has assisted North Korean refugees in China for years, estimates that about 3 million people died during the famine. Human Rights in North Korea and The Food Crisis, Good Friends Center for Peace, Human Rights and Refugees, January 2004. Based on various official statistics, including those from the DPRK Central Bureau of Statistics and FAO/WFP, and birth and death rates between 1994 and 2000, economist Lee Suk estimates that 580,000 to 690,000 people died of hunger or hunger-related diseases. However, Lee says, the estimate increases dramatically to 630,000 to 1.12 million deaths if one uses information available on the nutritional status of North Korean children. Suk, The DPRK Famine of 1994-2000. Daniel Goodkind and Loraine West, demographic experts, say North Korea lost roughly one million people to famine. Daniel Goodkind and Loraine West, “The North Korean Famine and Its Demographic Impact,” Population and Development Review, June 1, 2001.

[12] White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea 2005, Korea Institute for National Unification, April 2005.

[13] Monthly North Korea, September 2004, pp 214-216.

[14] “Understanding North Korea 2005,” Education Center for Unification, Ministry of Unification, 2005. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification played the role of the state’s propaganda arm against North Korea during the Cold War era. The information it produced was often seen as politically biased. However, this perception has shifted somewhat since South Korea changed its North Korea policy from one of confrontation to “engagement” when former President Kim Dae-jung took office in 1998. 

[15] Human Rights Watch, “The Invisible Exodus: North Koreans in the People’s Republic of China,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 14, no. 8 (C), November 2002, pp 25-26; Are They Telling Us the Truth? Brutality Beyond Belief, Life Funds for North Korean Refugees & Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, February 2004, pp 86-107.

[16] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, February 6, 2006.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview, Seoul, February 2, 2006.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview, Seoul, February 7, 2006.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview, Seoul, February 2, 2006. Lee escaped to China in November 1990, was caught the same day, then subsequently interrogated and tortured by North Korean security officials. As he spent only one day in China, the authorities determined that he had not committed any “subversive” offense, and released him. He escaped again to China, spending a few years in hiding, before making his way to South Korea to resettle in Seoul. Now he works as a human rights activist.

[20] WFP, “WFP Emergency Reports,” February 24, 2006.

[21] In July 2005, WFP regained access to Kowon County in South Hamgyong Province, seven months after it was banned from visiting the county in January 2005. WFP, “WFP Emergency Reports,” July 22, 2005.

[22] Bradley K. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, U.S., September 2004, pp 551-568.

[23] “Medecins sans Frontières Forced to Withdraw from North Korea,” Agence France-Presse, September 30, 1998.

[24] “MSF calls on donors to review their aid policy towards DPRK,” Medecins sans Frontières (MSF) press release, September 30, 1998.

[25] WFP, “WFP Emergency Reports,” November 11, 2005.

[26] Andrew S. Natsios, The Great North Korean Famine: Famine, Politics and Foreign Policy, United States Institute of Peace, printed in U.S., 2001, pp 171-179. Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Hunger and Human Rights: The Politics of Famine in North Korea, printed in U.S., August 2005.

[27] White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea 2005, Korea Institute for National Unification, pp 201-226.

[28] “U.N. agency says approval is given to plan to battle nutritional deficiencies in North Korea,” The Associated Press, February 23, 2006.

[29] Suk, The DPRK Famine of 1994-2000.

[30] Understanding North Korea’s Economic Reforms, Center for the North Korean Economy, Korea Institute for National Unification, April 2005.

[31] Ibid.

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