Human Rights in North Korea

Testimony to the Human Rights Caucus
United States Congress
Washington, DC

April 17, 2002

Three Main Points

1. North Korea's food emergency fundamentally reflects misguided economic policies, and will remain a chronic condition as long as these policies remain in place.

2. Aid has crowded out imports on commercial terms and now feeds perhaps one-third of the population.

3. While we are ethically obligated to feed starving North Koreans, we are not obligated to do so in ways that strengthen the existing political regime there.


North Korea has been experiencing food shortages since at least the early 1990s. Estimates of excess deaths run from the hundreds of thousands to 3 million with the central estimate around 1 million or about 5 percent of the pre-famine population. This would make the North Korean famine comparable in percentage terms to that experienced by China during the Great Leap Forward.

Unlike the Great Leap Forward, however, North Korea's famine has not been caused by the introduction of misguided policies and solvable by their removal, but instead is a product of 50 years of economic mismanagement.

In the absence of wholesale policy changes to address the underlying problems, North Korea has drifted into a policy of chronic dependency of international assistance. North Korea's grain needs are estimated at roughly 5 million metric tons. Domestic production fluctuates around the 2.5 to 3 million metric ton level. This leaves a 2-2.5-million-metric-ton gap to be closed by imports on commercial terms or aid.


Historically, most of the population relied on the public distribution system for food. This system has broken down, and food is increasingly distributed through markets.

Today access to food depends on a complex set of factors including

  • Membership in privileged groups such as the military or party or other "high priority" essential workers through conventional distribution channels
  • Location in net food producing or consuming areas
  • Access to hard currency to obtain food through markets

In recent years, aid has largely displaced imports on commercial terms and now accounts for more than 80 percent of food inflows, feeding roughly one-third of the population. That is to say, food aid is fungible, acting as implicit balance of payments support.

Official and private aid agencies work under highly restricted conditions. For example, according to the United Nations' World Food Program, it now has access to counties accounting for roughly 85 percent of the North Korean population. However access remains constrained, requiring, for example, pre-notification for visits.

As a consequence, conditions on the ground in North Korea remain unclear. With that caveat, the impression one gets is that the government of North Korea has essentially triaged the population on the basis of location and strategic value to the state.

Specific actions have included

  • Warehousing internally displaced persons in prison camps (9/27 camps) (which were reportedly closed in 1999)
  • Severe punishments including execution for unauthorized cross-border trading or smuggling to obtain food. Again, one gets the sense that there has been a relaxation in the severity of this response in recent years.

I know of no evidence that food aid provided through the UN or NGO groups has gone to the military. It does not need to-the military can access domestic production and aid from China.

Who goes without? The hardest hit group appears to be urban nonessential workers in net importing areas who had neither direct access to production, as did farmers or the political pull of the privileged groups. Interviews with refugees in China indicated that the refugees are primarily, though not exclusively, from the politically "wavering" class.

What has been the response of the outside world?

At the strategic level the official sector has pursued a policy of conditional engagement, providing relatively large amounts of food, implicitly or explicitly tied to the attainment of political objectives.

Tactically, the degree of access and monitoring has improved since 1995 though it still falls short of what would be desired.

The nongovernmental sector is split:

  • Some, including Medicins San Frontieres, have cited intolerable conditions including diversion of aid to privileged groups and have withdrawn
  • The majority has stayed on, under the belief that they are ameliorating hunger if under less than optimal conditions.

This, in a nutshell, encapsulates the ethical dilemma posed by the North Korean famine.

Policy Recommendation

Twenty years ago, the world was confronted with a similar problem with the mass exodus of "boat people" from Vietnam. The international community underwrote the establishment of temporary resettlement camps in surrounding Asian nations with the promise that these would be way stations to permanent resettlement. There is no reason that China and Russia alone should bear the burden of the North Korean nightmare. Other, wealthier, countries, including the United States, Japan, and the European Union, must open their doors to permanent refugee resettlement.

We are ethically obligated to feed starving North Koreans, but this need not be done in North Korea, or in ways that strengthen the existing political regime there.