North Korea's Other Problem

International alarm over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions skyrocketed after that country’s nuclear test last fall. Given the rapid increase in nuclear aspirations among so-called rogue nations, the alarm is warranted. But as winter’s cold descends, the fact that many North Koreans face hunger and even starvation has received much less attention. Summer floods wreaked severe damage on the country’s harvests and consequently the North Korean government’s ability to provide basic food. What food is available is reserved for those whose political loyalty is unquestioned.

Ruled with an iron fist by Kim Jong-il, the government in Pyongyang has control of crops raised on cooperative farms. In the mid-to-late 1990’s, North Korea experienced a severe famine that caused the death of an estimated one million people. A report earlier this year by Human Rights Watch, North Korea: A Matter of Survival, points to what it terms a deadly combination of factors that not only helped cause that famine but are largely responsible for hunger today. Heading the list are both the government’s monopoly on food and a distribution system that has little to do with the actual needs of ordinary people, especially those at greatest risk of hunger’s effects.

The distribution system has been used as a brutal means of controlling the population by forcing it to rely entirely on the state for this the most basic of human needs. The great majority suffer from hunger and the compromised health that goes with it. Members of the elitehigh-ranking Workers Party officialsare given preference in the distribution of food and other products, which they obtain from state supply centers using coupons. Those viewed as less than staunchly loyal to the regime and ordinary citizens are allotted a minimum and are frequently reduced to eating grass, tree bark and insects. Reduced food allotments are often used as a weapon of both punishment and control. But now, so grave are the shortages that even some members of the military are inadequately fed.


In the population at large, those who suffer most from hunger are young children, nursing mothers and the elderly. Over a third of children are chronically malnourished. Vulnerable groups like these have been assisted by the United Nations’ World Food Program. But North Korean resistance to the organization’s insistence upon monitoring donated food distribution to ensure it is reaching needy people obliged the W.F.P. to curtail its emergency food operation. Citing security concerns, at one point government officials banned the W.F.P. from visiting 43 out of 203 counties. Some escapees from North Korea have suggested, the report notes, that the restrictions arose from the presence in the affected areas of nuclear facilities, military operations and camps for prisoners.

The World Food Program has since restored some of its assistance, but Human Rights Watch’s Kay Seok, who is based in South Korea and is the author of the report, told America that because of government pressure, since resuming operations in May the size of its operation shrank to about a third of what it was last year.

She also cited a late December report by Radio Free Asia that the organization was able to raise only 15 percent of its target donation for North Korea this year, a circumstance that reflects the reluctance of traditional donors to give in the wake of the nuclear test.

The World Food Program is not the only organization that has been hindered in its relief work. Denied access to certain areas, Doctors Without Borders, the humanitarian medical organization, withdrew its personnel from the country in 1998 out of concern that food aid was not going to those in greatest need.

China sends a certain amount of grain, and many Koreans fled to China, North Korea’s neighbor, across the border during the famine years. This still occurs. But the International Crisis Group has reported that Beijing makes it difficult for them to remain. Many are forced to travel farther in search of refuge in Mongolia or in Southeast Asia. But the hospitality of host countries is stretched thin. Those caught in the attempt to escape from North Korea face punishment and even execution. China itself has forcibly repatriated many.

Whatever post-test sanctions the United Nations Security Council chooses to impose, they should not include measures that limit food aid and thereby endanger still further ordinary North Koreans’ fragile hold on life. For its own part, instead of pouring its slender resources into its nuclear aspirations, the government of Kim Jong-il should reconsider its obligations to its impoverished and brutally repressed populationwhich again faces famine.

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