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V. The Impact of the Public Distribution System, the Ban on the Private Trade of Grain, and the Halting of Emergency Food Aid by WFP


According to South Korea’s DongA Daily, the North Korean government sent instructions to fully reinstate the PDS to all cities and counties on August 19, 2005. This was followed by meetings with provincial officials to ensure compliance.43 South Korea’s Yonhap News published an article from Chosun Shinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper based in Japan, citing a North Korean spokesman as saying that North Korea fully reinstated food rationing as of October 1, 2005.44 WFP later confirmed the renewed rationing in several periodic reports on its operations inside North Korea.

On October 28, 2005, WFP issued a report on its monitoring visits to public distribution centers across the country. The report assessed the renewed implementation of the PDS. County officials reported to WFP that they had been instructed by the central government to normalize the PDS rations to the 1994 level of 500 grams per person per day. According to the report, the goal was being met in most counties in October, mainly with produce from their recently completed harvest in addition to rice provided by South Korea.45 However, on November 25, 2005––less than a month later––WFP reported that many people were receiving rations considerably smaller than the average target of 500 grams of grain per person per day. As trading in grain remained prohibited, many people therefore faced difficulties in obtaining enough grain to cover their daily needs, the report said.46

According to WFP’s Monthly Update for November/December 2005, the ban on market sales of grain remained in place across the country, but unofficial sales continued to be observed in Pyongyang. Prices had dropped sharply. Imported rice was sold at an average of 525 won per kilogram compared to 675 won in October, while local rice had gone down from 700 won to 650 won per kilogram, and maize had decreased from 400 won to 330 won. The decrease in prices appears to be a result of the increasing accessibility of grain and seems to indicate that the normalization of the PDS has so far been successful in Pyongyang in November/December 2005, the report said.47 One could conclude that this means that the PDS may actually be working, but it should be remembered that residents of Pyongyang have always been the greatest beneficiaries of the PDS, as they are considered to be among the nation’s preferred citizens, and that conditions in Pyongyang do not reflect conditions in other parts of the country. The government routinely purges from Pyongyang and other big cities those perceived to be less than staunchly loyal to the regime; lower food rations in times of shortage is added punishment for such persons.48

Furthermore, other reports indicate that the resumption of what North Korea considers effective rationing was short-lived. In late December 2005, The Daily NK,49 an Internet news provider focusing on North Korea, reported that, at least in the areas it surveyed, rations were distributed in October but stopped again in November. In areas where the authorities strictly enforced the ban on the buying and selling of grain at markets, such as in Chungjin City, many North Koreans were forced to buy grain in black markets while those selling grain at farmers’ markets did so by bribing government officials.50 Other reports from The Daily NK suggest that the local authorities are inconsistent in applying this policy, as crackdowns on the buying and selling of grain relaxed in some areas while they worsened in other places.51

Separately, news reports raised suspicion that North Korea may be trying to make profit by selling grain to its own citizens. In November 2005, South Korea’s DongA Daily reported that the North Korean authorities were selling grain directly to citizens who had not reported back to their state-designated workplaces that they abandoned during the food crisis at a much higher price than they were selling grain to those who had returned.52 In February 2006 The Daily NK reported that in the city of Chungjin, public distribution centers were selling grain at the same price as in markets, but people were forced to buy grain from the centers instead of markets.53 These reports are anecdotal in nature and scant in detail, and it is impossible to confirm whether such practices are widespread, or if they reflect a new state policy. But they compound the concerns that the normalization of the PDS is not benefiting ordinary North Koreans.

Some experts argue that the PDS could help North Korea’s most vulnerable population who do not have their own sources of income or access to food. This could be true if the system were used as a social safety net for the vulnerable. The PDS or any other ration system does not necessarily lead to human rights violations. In fact, a ration system may be necessary under certain circumstances to address food shortages or food hoarding during military conflicts or natural disasters. But many North Korean escapees have told researchers that young children and the elderly––the most vulnerable members of society––were among the first victims of the famine in the 1990s when the PDS was in full force.54 The concerns raised by the North Korean government’s renewed reliance on rationing lie both in the insidious discrimination that has accompanied such rationing in the past and the chronic under-supply of grain which the government has proven unwilling or unable to address through the PDS.

The Ban on the Private Trade of Grain

As already noted, North Korea renewed its ban on the buying and selling of grain at markets in October 2005.55 The WFP reported in November 2005 that it was seeing more and more examples of the implementation of the new policy. In the two Pyongyang markets that foreigners have access to, grain was no longer available, and local officials interviewed by WFP staff have confirmed that the same trend could be observed across the country.56

Food rationing has been 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. It appears the government is now trying to turn back the clock to regain some of the control over its people it lost when it allowed greater freedom of movement and the development of farmers’ markets, regardless of the increased risk of hunger.

During the famine of the 1990s, large numbers of North Koreans escaped to China to find food, drawing international attention to the conditions inside North Korea.57 Since the famine, increased private trade in grain has enhanced freedom of movement and informal contacts among the population, a development that would have been unthinkable under the old system, where people needed state permission to leave their town or city of residence, and where a violation led to harsh punishment. The authorities may believe that banning the private trade of grain, which makes up a large portion of the private economy, could help to temporarily restore control to a certain degree, though it is unlikely to last as too many North Koreans now depend on private trade for their livelihood and internal discipline and party loyalty is reportedly weaker than in the past.

Some sympathetic observers suggest more benign motives for the ban on private grain trading, such as curbing high unemployment by forcing people to return to their old, state-designated work places, and curbing inflation caused by fluctuating prices. It is unlikely, however, that the ban will be able to achieve these ends given the government’s inability to address the underlying causes of the chronic under-supply of food. Even when the PDS was functioning, most North Koreans did not receive adequate food from it alone. Penalizing the buying and selling of grain is unlikely to completely stop private trade of grain, but it gives local officials an incentive to harass and extort bribes from the people engaged in such activities. It is impossible to confirm how widespread such practices are, but The Daily NK reported in late 2005, for example, that residents in the city of Chungjin already had been forced to bribe officials to buy and sell grain at markets.58

Limits on WFP and Other Food Providers

WFP has been feeding millions of the nation’s most vulnerable population––mostly young children, pregnant and nursing women, and the elderly––since 1995.59 More than half of WFP’s international staff members, numbering thirty-two at the end of 2005, were directly engaged in food aid monitoring during the year. They conducted an average of 388 monitoring visits a month in 2005, compared to an average of 440 a month in 2004. For much of the year, WFP had access to 160 of the country’s 203 counties and districts. Unannounced visits to distribution sites were still not permitted, although there was greater flexibility at the county level to make changes to the monitoring plan when monitors arrived to do their visits. Some WFP international staff members stationed in the country at the end of 2005 had a basic knowledge of the Korean language.60

WFP’s monitoring in North Korea fell short of its standards employed elsewhere, including access to the entire country, unannounced visits, and random selection of interviewees, among others, because of the restrictions imposed by North Korea.

In 2005, following the North Korean government’s demand to end emergency food aid, WFP progressively wound down its monitoring activities. It closed its five sub-offices outside of Pyongyang and ended its emergency operations as of December 31, 2005. WFP’s Executive Director James Morris visited Pyongyang in December 2005, but the two sides failed to reach agreement on the size and structure of a future WFP operation and the number of WFP international staff to be stationed in North Korea.61

In February 2006, the WFP Executive Board approved a two-year North Korea program focused on development-oriented activities. WFP’s Pyongyang office is hoping to resume aid soon, which would deliver 75,000 tons of food per year to 1.9 million children, women of child-bearing age, and vulnerable urban populations through food-for-work programs and mother and child feeding programs. The program would focus on the country’s fifty most vulnerable counties.62 The WFP and North Korea still need to reach agreement on how many staff WFP can employ, their access to beneficiaries, and their ability to monitor assistance. Before food distribution can restart, additional commitments from donor countries are also needed.63Gerald Bourke, WFP spokesman in Beijing, told Human Rights Watch that there is much concern for the millions of people WFP has been assisting, despite improved food availability in 2005. “There are problems of access to that food on the part of the vulnerable people. Our food, because it targeted the vulnerable people, was particularly appropriate,” said Bourke.64

In a related development, the British government presented a draft resolution on human rights in North Korea on behalf of the European Union at the United Nations General Assembly. The resolution was adopted on November 17, 2005. Consequently, North Korea decided to reject further aid from the European Union or the Humanitarian Aid Department of the European Commission (ECHO), and continued to push for most of the resident NGOs to wind up their operations by December 31, 2005. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), WHO, and FAO will maintain their offices, but the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) will close.65

South Korea currently sends more food to North Korea than any other country. The South Korean government plans to assist 2.3 million North Korean children under the age of five and one million pregnant and nursing women, through a nutrition and health project with the help of WHO and NGOs. It is not yet clear whether the beneficiaries of this new project will be from the same group of people who have been assisted by WFP.66 South Korea conducts field trips to monitor food distribution––twice per 100,000 tons it offers North Korea––and carried out twenty such monitoring trips to North Korea in 2005, up from ten trips in 2004.67 Although the number of monitoring visits is increasing, they are still highly inadequate compared to the method and frequency of monitoring conducted by WFP. South Korean officials told Human Rights Watch it continues to insist on adequate monitoring of its shipment, although it provides food to North Korea in the form of a loan, rather than aid, but it is difficult as North Korea is resistant to Seoul’s demands on improved monitoring.

Some western aid organizations have left North Korea since the end of 2005, while others are still trying to persuade the government to allow them to stay.68 South Korean aid organizations do not have resident staff, and remain unaffected by the development. According to the WFP, China offers its aid in the form of concessional exports, but there is no information available on the details of such aid. It is unlikely that China does any monitoring.

In sum, the combination of the normalization of the PDS, the ban on the private trade of grain, and the extreme limitations on WFP and other food providers means that socially weak, marginalized, and disfavored people in North Korea likely will receive far less than the minimum amount of food they need this year. The PDS simply cannot provide enough food. The key to survival for many will be their ability to privately buy grain, currently an illegal act. But without sufficient international aid, which has served in the past decade as a safety net, those who are not able to engage in private trade, such as the poorest of the poor, young children, pregnant and nursing women, the elderly, and the jobless, will be left to fend for themselves. As soon as a bad harvest arrives, or food aid runs out, this will likely mean for some people death from starvation or long-lasting damage to their health, especially for children. Another famine cannot be ruled out.

[43] Joo Sung-ha, “North Korea to Revive PDS in October – Sent Order to Whole Country,” DongA Daily, August 31, 2005.

[44] Moon Sung-kyu, “North Korean Authorities Confirm Normalization of Food Supply,” Yonhap News, October 27, 2005.

[45] WFP, “WFP Emergency Reports,” October 28, 2005.

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

[47] “The WFP DPR Korea Monthly Update November/December 2005,” WFP, December 2005.

[48] “Human Rights in North Korea and The Food Crisis,” Good Friends Center for Peace, Human Rights and Refugees, January 2004, pp 66-73; Natsios, The Great North Korean Famine, pp 171-179.

[49] Founded in December 2004, The Daily NK focuses on democracy and human rights in North Korea, but covers nuclear weapons, separated families and other North Korea-related topics. It publishes online, mostly in Korean, but some is translated into English. It has several correspondents stationed in China, who periodically interview North Korean escapees to publish the latest information inside North Korea. It has a conservative editorial line, but its articles on developments inside North Korea are considered reliable.

[50] Kim Young Jin, “10 Questions and 10 Answers for Chungjin Resident in December 2005,” The Daily NK, December 27, 2005.

[51] Kwon Jung-hyun, “Rice Prices Stabilize in Sinuiju in December,” The Daily NK, December 13, 2005. Kwak Dae-jung, “About Food and Commodity Prices in North Korea This Winter,” The Daily NK, December 13, 2005.

[52] Joo Sung-ha, “Double Price System in North Korea’s Food Distribution,” DongA Daily, November 10, 2005.

[53] Han Young Jin, “Is North Korea Doing Rice Business Against Its Own People?” The Daily NK, February 24, 2006.

[54] Human Rights in North Korea and The Food Crisis, Good Friends Center for Peace, Human Rights and Refugees, January 2004, pp 30-35. A survey conducted by Good Friends from 1997 to 2000 against 1,855 North Koreans showed drastically high death rates among children of nine years or younger and those of 60 or older, compared to people of other ages.

[55] WFP, “WFP Emergency Reports,” September 30, 2005.

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

[57] Regardless of their reasons for leaving, North Koreans often face harsh treatment upon return, ranging from detention to torture, long prison terms and even executions. The North Korean government considers leaving North Korea without state permission as a criminal offense and often as an act of treason, which may be punishable by death. China is obliged under international law not to return persons to a territory where their life or freedom is threatened. This obligation, known as the principle of “non-refoulement,” is articulated in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, both of which China has been a party to since 1982. The right of non-refoulement is recognized as a rule of customary international law, binding on all states regardless of whether they have signed that treaty. China, however, has been arresting and sending back North Koreans, categorically labeling them as “illegal economic migrants” and disregarding the persecution they will face as a result of their illegal exit. The Invisible Exodus: North Koreans in the People’s Republic of China, Human Rights Watch, November 2002.

[58] Kim Young Jin, “10 Questions and 10 Answers for Chungjin Resident in December 2005,” The Daily NK, December 27, 2005.

[59] In 2005, WFP distributed 293,000 tons of commodities to help feed 4.6 million North Koreans. In 2004, it provided 274,000 tons to 5.4 million people, and in 2003, it distributed 512,000 tons to 5.9 million people. Human Rights Watch email interview with Gerald Bourke, WFP spokesman, April 3, 2006.

[60] Human Rights Watch email interview with Richard Ragan, WFP Country Director for the DPRK, January 4, 2006.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Gerald Bourke, WFP spokesman, February 8, 2006.

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

[64] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Gerald Bourke, WFP spokesman, February 8, 2006.

[65] “DPRK Appeal No. 05AA059 Programme Update No. 3,” International Federation of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), December 31, 2005. The U.N. agencies often worked in collaboration with each other and carried out a variety of projects, including food and medical aid. More development-focused projects included food for work programs such as the rehabilitation of farm land damaged by floods, the restoration of sea dykes and river embankments, the building of irrigation ditches in drought-prone areas, and reforestation projects. WFP and UNICEF also have worked with the North Korean government to locally produce corn soya blend, rice milk blend, grain milk blend, biscuits, and fortified noodles, all intended for the most vulnerable beneficiaries.  “Food Security: Overview, World Hunger – Korea (DPR),” UNICEF, July 23, 2004.

[66] “Project to Assist North Korean Infants and Young Children,” The (South Korean) Ministry of Unification, December 2005.

[67] “The (South Korean) Government’s Monitoring Efforts for Aid to North Korea,” The (South Korean) Ministry of Unification, December 2005.

[68] According to the WFP, as of the end of 2005, 12 western NGOs had residing staff in Pyongyang, including ADRA (Adventist Development & Relief Agency International), Campus fuer Christus, CESVI (Cooperazione e Sviluppo), Concern Worldwide, DWHH/GAA (German Agro Action), GAIN, Handicap International, KMED, PMU Interlife (PringstMissionens Utveck-lingssamarbete), Premiere Urgence, TGH (Triangle Generation Humanitaire) and Save the Children.

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