Power-Hungry North Korean Leaders Blamed for Famine

By Rachel Vandenbrink
nk-un-hearing-oct-2013.jpg Members of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea listen to testimony from experts in Washington, Oct. 31, 2013.

North Korea's authoritarian leaders were responsible for the famine that killed hundreds of thousands in the 1990s and have refused to adopt measures remedying the country’s chronic food shortages out of fear of losing their grip on power, experts on Thursday told a U.N. commission probing possible crimes against humanity.

Two American experts testifying before the panel in Washington said North Korea’s government has violated obligations to protect their people’s right to food by implementing misguided policies, hindering aid to the country, and withholding food from those deemed disloyal to the regime.

Probing violations of the right to food and determining accountability for the Great Famine that devastated North Korea from 1994 to 1998 are key objectives of the commission, which will present a report of its finding and recommendations to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in March.

The two-day hearing, which ended Thursday, included testimony on the opening day from North Korean defectors who detailed brutal torture at the hands of authorities in the impoverished country.

The commission had gathered evidence of rights violations from witnesses in Seoul, Tokyo, and London since July 1, following a resolution by the U.N. Human Rights Council.

'Clearly culpable'

North Korea economy expert Marcus Noland told the panel Thursday that Pyongyang is “clearly culpable” in the denial of the right to food, both under current leader Kim Jong Un and his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, who ruled during the devastating famine era.

“The North Korean government did not and continues not to use the resources available at its disposal to address the lack of food among the populace, and when aid was offered, it hindered and continues to hinder the operation of relief programs,” he said.

The North Korean government’s economic and agricultural policies contributed to the food shortages that led to the famine, he said, and the leaders could have avoided the devastation it wreaked by devoting a small portion of its budget—such as by diverting some from military expenditures—to addressing food needs.   

“This was a man-made, preventable tragedy.  These people died needlessly, and the government is culpable.”  

Impoverished North Korea has been spending millions of dollars developing nuclear weapons and missiles and has come under heavy international sanctions for years.  

Not down to 'incompetence'

Former U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Andrew Natsios said that even if natural causes had been behind the early factors contributing to the famine, once it knew about the problem, Kim Jong Il’s government did not act fast enough to address it.   

“He was in charge, he was responsible, he knew what was going on, and he chose not to buy food and give it to the people."

The leadership would have known how the famine was devastating the population—including from government records showing a massive drop in children’s heights and weights due to malnutrition, Natsios said.

Its lack of action could not be put down to “incompetence,” he said.

“They knew what was going on and they chose not to take action to protect the population because their first objective was survival.”

Current food distribution policies discriminate against those deemed disloyal to the regime, particularly in the country’s remote northeastern provinces, the two experts said.

They recommended that any food aid to the country should be delivered to the country’s eastern ports, which are farther from the capital Pyongyang, in the form of wheat or corn, which are less desirable to elites than rice and more likely to reach those on the bottom rungs of North Korean society.

“The North Korean government should understand that because food aid is not going to the intended people, they are losing support among their own people,” Natsios said.

Commission of Inquiry

Pyongyang has responded neither to an invitation to talk to the three-member commission, which is chaired by Australian judge Michael Kirby, nor to a request for the panel to visit the country.

The other members of the panel are Serbian rights campaigner Sonja Biserko and Indonesian Marzuki Darusman, who is also Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea.

It is unclear what actions the U.N. could take against North Korea for rights abuses. Any referral to the International Criminal Court, for example, will require approval from the country’s key ally and permanent U.N. Security Council member China.

Prison camps

Another key focus of the inquiry are abuses in North Korea’s prison camp system.

Researchers presented evidence from satellite analysis that there had been a reduction in  prison camp population since the 1980s and 1990s that can be partially attributed to “extraordinarily” high death rates, with prisoners dying from severe malnutrition and disease, industrial accidents, and execution.

Researcher David Hawk estimated the inmate population as of 2010 to be around 80,000 to 120,000, compared to 150,000 to 250,000 in the 1980s and 1990.   

The decrease also indicates cutback in the use of the collective responsibility system, through which the relatives of those deemed disloyal are imprisoned for “guilt by association,” he said.

Women inmates

Roberta Cohen, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, urged the commission to draw its attention to women in the prison system who become pregnant through sexual exploitation.

North Korean defectors have reported that at police interrogation and detention facilities along the border with China, some women are subjected to forced abortions or forced to kill their newborns, she said.

“The women are sometimes given injections to kill the fetus or to induce labor, or guards are seen kicking the belly of a pregnant woman or jumping up and down on her," she said.

Kirby indicated earlier this week at the U.N. General Assembly that evidence gathered so far points to “large-scale patterns of systematic and gross human rights violations.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council has been investigating North Korea since 2004, but had run into opposition against the establishment of a commission from Pyongyang’s allies China and Russia, as well as from South Korea and Japan, who feared that such a move would lead the rogue nation to act out in retaliation.

This year, the council was able to approve the resolution, presented by Japan and the European Union, without North Korean sympathizers such as China and Cuba serving as members. Wording which condemned the abduction of foreign nationals by North Korea helped to bring Japan on board.


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