The United States will push North Korea to rectify its dismal human rights record, including reuniting families divided by the Korean War, according to the State Department following the first visit of the American special envoy on human rights to Pyongyang.
Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for human rights in North Korea, traveled to North Korea from May 24-28 to assess the country’s food situation and said after the trip that the country must do more to address concerns the U.S. has about how food aid is distributed.
A food assessment team traveled with King to North Korea and returned to the U.S. last week, though it has yet to release its report which would determine whether Washington will resume food aid to the impoverished country.
But according to a spokesperson for the State Department, King also made “significant” steps towards establishing dialogue on human rights violations in the reclusive communist state.
“Ambassador King had discussions on human rights issues with DPRK officials in North Korea,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said in a statement, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—the official name of the country.
“This is a significant first step toward substantive discussions on human rights concerns,” the statement said.
The State Department noted that the visit represented the first time that the envoy had been granted entry to the country and “the first time we were able to engage in a direct discussion on how North Korea can improve its human rights record.”
“We welcome a continued dialogue with the DPRK on human rights issues.”
The State Department said that Ambassador King had also raised the issue of Korean divided families as part of his human rights and humanitarian portfolio.
“The United States remains concerned about the issue of Korean-Americans separated from their family members in the DPRK since the end of the Korean War,” it said.
“We continue to do all that we can to raise this issue in relevant fora.”
In addition, King secured the release of U.S. businessman Eddie Jun Yong-Su, who had served six months in detention for allegedly carrying out missionary activities in North Korea.
On his return from North Korea, King told a Congressional hearing that the U.S. was still deciding whether it would send food aid to the impoverished nation.
Christian relief groups who have previously delivered food aid to North Korea say the country faces serious and imminent food shortages.
"If the team determines there is a legitimate humanitarian need, [North Korea] must first address our serious concerns about monitoring and outstanding issues related to our previous food program," King told Congress.
U.S. humanitarian workers were forced to leave behind 20,000 tons of food they had been tasked with monitoring the distribution of when they were abruptly told by North Korean officials to exit the country in March of 2009.
King said that if the U.S. decides to send food aid to North Korea, it will insist on much stricter guidelines, including sending Korean-speaking U.S. monitors and sending food that is “less desirable" to the country's elite and military.
He said U.S. ally South Korea had voiced its opposition to the possibility of resuming food aid to the North. Critics there argue that Pyongyang may be overstating its shortages in order to supply the upcoming 100th anniversary celebration of founding father Kim Il Sung’s birthday next year.
Experts say past food donations have been used exclusively to feed North Korea’s military and political elite, or have been distributed to the populace as part of lavish festivals held to celebrate the regime’s continued power.
Food exhausted by June
North Korea reduced its plan to purchase 325,000 tons of food on the global market in 2011 to 200,000 tons due to rapidly rising food prices, according to a joint statement released in February by Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan's Purse, and World Vision.
Only a fraction of this amount had been purchased thus far, the five aid agencies said.
Total agricultural production for 2010 was reported at 5.12 million tons, well below the national food need of 7.93 million tons for a population of 24 million people.
"North Korean authorities estimate that food stocks will be exhausted by mid-June," the statement said.
It added that public distribution systems had cut rations to an average 360-400 grams a day for an adult. Current rations provide approximately 1,250 calories.
"With expected shortfalls in the spring crops, it is unlikely the rations will remain even at these meager levels."
North Korea regularly faces food shortages, and a widespread famine in the 1990s killed up to 2 million people.
The country recently endured large-scale flooding, severely affecting farmland and crop yields. According to South Korea's Meteorological Administration, rainfall in North Korea jumped 139 percent above the monthly average to 12.6 inches in July.
North Korea's food shortages are caused by a combination of factors including a lack of arable land, erosion caused by deforestation, and inadequate water reservoirs necessary to fight drought, according to the U.N. World Food Program.
Reported by Jinkuk Kim for RFA’s Korean service. Written by Joshua Lipes.