Launch of the OECD Economic Survey of the US


Launch of the OECD Economic Survey of the US



World Food Day: The Challenge of North Korea

The large number of chronically hungry North Koreans stands as a challenge to the United Nations as it commemorates World Food Day on October 16. North Korea in 1981 pledged to take steps, to the maximum of its available resources and over a period of time, to realize the “fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger” and to an adequate standard of living, “including adequate food.”[1] Yet according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), whose founding the Day celebrates, as many as 7.6 million North Koreans, or 31 percent of the population of 24.5 million, were estimated to be “undernourished” from 2011 to 2013, that is, unable to acquire enough food. That the problem is endemic is evident from FAO’s earlier statistics: from 2008-2010, 40.2 percent of North Koreans suffered from undernourishment, and from 2005-2007, 36 percent.[2]

These figures, it is sometimes pointed out, are an improvement over the late 1990s when possibly more than one million died from hunger and related diseases, or even a few years ago when the “widespread consumption of grass” was reported and the coping strategies of vulnerable children, pregnant women and elderly were said to be “on a knife edge.”[3] In Pyongyang, the capital, where the favored elite live, many have access to minimal or adequate food and new cafes and restaurants are being constructed. The growth of private markets, albeit subject to periodic crack downs, also help many to survive. North Korea nonetheless has the highest percentage of undernourishment in Asia with more than one out of four children under the age of five estimated to be stunted (stunting being as high as 40 percent in rural areas) and where the majority of the population, according to the UN Country Team in 2013, is “chronically food insecure.”[4] There are still scattered reports of North Koreans in some areas starving to death.[5] Chronic malnutrition, moreover, causes vitamin and iron deficiencies that lead to life threatening diseases such as tuberculosis as well as a high percentage of anemia among women, which increases the likelihood of maternal mortality.

Yet international agencies’ efforts to reach the needy in North Korea have frequently been thwarted by Pyongyang’s diversions of food aid to its military and elite. This has made Western donors devise ever more stringent monitoring conditions. When the United States in 2012 offered to provide an initial 240,000 metric tons of “nutritional assistance” to North Korea, it made sure its contribution contained only food supplements (like corn soy gruel) the military and elite would not choose to eat, and included nearly 100 Korean-speaking American monitors to oversee the distribution. Similarly, the World Food Program (WFP) worked out a system whereby children’s arms would be measured so that WFP could be sure the food actually reached them. North Korea in time has come around to agreeing to increased monitoring and says it accepts the UN principle of “no access, no aid,” although controversy remains over the extent to which it actually implements food agreements.

More fundamental, however, has been the linkage of humanitarian aid to political goals. Should “hunger know no politics,” as Ronald Reagan famously declared for Ethiopia in 1984? Or, in the particular case of North Korea, is it legitimate to put conditions on humanitarian assistance? The United States’s planned 2012 food shipment was announced together with a North Korean pledge to declare a moratorium on long-range missile launches and nuclear tests. When North Korea attempted to launch a satellite into orbit in April 2012, the food shipment was cancelled, and some 900,000 vulnerable children, women and elderly went wanting. Such linkage has prompted calls for a separation of food aid from political considerations, not only by UN agencies but also by former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios who has pointed out that it could lead to donors’ turning “a blind eye” to food diversions when nuclear agreements actually were being honored.[6] South Korea’s new President Park Geun-hye has also supported de-linking aid from politics as she sees food as a potential tool to build “trustpolitik” on the Korean peninsula. But avoiding linkage is difficult, given that North Korea itself insists on food and fuel aid as rewards for steps toward denuclearization. For their part Western donors are rightly concerned that food aid will allow North Korea to spend more fully on military programs. North Korea reportedly spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its failed missile test in April 2012, and perhaps a billion more on its December 2012 missile launch,[7] all the while expecting donors to deliver millions of dollars of food aid. Many as a result declined;[8] the US has given no food aid since 2008-9. Only China has remained ready to bail out North Korea, but not always, and not always without political or economic gain for itself; it too has expressed dissatisfaction with North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons and flaunt UN resolutions and UN sanctions on its arms trade and luxury item purchases. However, the food aid provided by China, which serves to bind North Korea more closely to its orbit, does not necessarily reach the needy or even contain monitoring conditions.     

Which leads to the issue of North Korea’s own national responsibility. Frequent references by humanitarian organizations to floods, poor harvests, decreased foreign aid, high international food prices and reductions in export earnings do not tell the whole story of food scarcity in North Korea. Seldom highlighted are Pyongyang’s own policies that undermine food security, among these low investment in health care and agriculture, the insufficient import of food, collectivized agriculture, overreliance on a failed public distribution system, misguided currency reform, and excessive expenditures on nuclear weapons production and the military (the ”military first” policy).

Also contributing is the songbun system of social classification, by which every citizen is assigned a status based on the perceived political loyalty of his or her family going back generations.[9] The result is a small favored loyal class entitled to extensive privileges while the vast majority of North Koreans are relegated to a lower status disadvantaging them when it comes to food, housing, medical supplies, and other services North Koreans receive. The northeastern provinces predominantly populated by those deemed of lower songbun suffered disproportionately during the great famine. A recent study found that “The lower the songbun, the lower one’s economic opportunity, which results in poorly compensated employment, inhibiting one’s ability to cope with food security.”[10] Even though private markets and bribes have begun to erode the impact of songbun, the inequality of the system continues to affect food distribution and food security.

It has been reported that North Korea may soon allow farmers to keep up to 70 percent of what they harvest, an increase over the 30 percent earlier promised but never fully carried out.[11] If implemented, it could make a difference in food production and distribution. But how the government calculates its share will be a determining factor as well as how and from where it deducts the cost of fertilizers and seeds and whether farmers will be able to sell their surplus at market prices.[12] Whether this proposed reform will lead to higher food production and more equitable distribution remains in question.  

The Human Rights Dimension

Earlier this year, the UN Human Rights Council’s 47 member states established a Commission of Inquiry (COI) of three experts to investigate “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” in North Korea, including “violation of the right to food.”[13] Human rights agreements North Korea itself has acceded to bind it to promote adequate food “without discrimination” and take steps to end hunger by improving food production and distribution. The Council, in its resolution establishing the COI, expressed alarm that North Korea’s “national policy priorities” were exacerbating “the precarious humanitarian situation” in the country and pointed out that it was the government’s “responsibility” to ensure “access to adequate food.”  

The COI is expected to determine-by March 2014 after a year’s investigation-whether North Korea’s overall violations of human rights, including the right to food, constitute “crimes against humanity,” for which North Korean officials could be held accountable. When it comes to prison labor camps, torture, abductions of foreigners and other comparable issues, the Commission will likely be able to establish the linkage, but in the case of food issues challenges arise.

As human rights specialist David Hawk has pointed out, “There is much less jurisprudence and scholarly literature on policy-induced or policy driven famine as a crime against humanity compared with violations such as extrajudicial and summary executions, or rape as an instrument of repression.”[14] Researchers from the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) in Seoul have also observed that, “The cause of starvation in North Korea cannot only be attributed to the public distribution system, but also natural disasters and the failures of the centrally controlled economy.” Therefore, whether those dying from starvation can only be considered the result of serious human rights abuses is “open to debate.”[15] Some argue that the great famine of the 1990s was policy-induced and that the government of North Korea through gross negligence could have willfully subjected its population to starvation. But COI Chair, Justice Michael Kirby has cautioned that the evidence may not be sufficient to prove deliberate intent, adding that, “There is, of course, a fine line between what is deliberate and what is the result of persistent and wilful incompetence.”[16]

Proving intent must be carefully linked to the songbun system and the discrimination it fosters against the “wavering” and ”hostile” classes that constitute the majority of the population as well as certain regions of the country (e.g. the northeast). Connections between hunger in North Korea and discriminatory state-controlled distribution policies have already been drawn by UN human rights rapporteurs.[17]  

Where the deliberate denial of food and medicines will be clear will be in the case of political prisoners in the prison labor camps. Up to 120,000 are arbitrarily incarcerated with thousands more in other detention facilities for “offenses” that would not count as crimes in other countries — listening to a foreign radio broadcast, watching a South Korean DVD, holding a Christian religious service, leaving the country without permission, or expressing critical remarks. In his interim report to the UN in September, Kirby pointed to their deliberate starvation, citing the testimonies of former prisoners who “liv[ed] on rodents, lizards and grass to survive,” and had to collect and burn the bodies of those who had died of starvation.[18] Humanitarian agencies have avoided referring to starvation in the camps, although high rates of death in detention have long been reported [19] and the State Department’s annual human rights report observes that “many” prisoners are “not expected to survive.”[20]  

Concluding Comments

This year’s World Food Day offers an opportunity to focus on the root causes of hunger in North Korea and seek genuine reforms to achieve sustainable results. These would include North Korea’s support for incentivizing food production, increased investments in food and health care, promoting freer rein for markets, and ending discriminatory treatment against most of the population. While food aid linked to denuclearization has been seen to undermine humanitarian goals, the linkage of food aid to economic reforms should enhance those goals. To this end, donors should consider developing a new framework that over the long term conditions their food aid and any agricultural investments on reforms. Initially, they should insist that any food assistance be linked to high level discussions about food sustainability. Going forward, there should be an understanding that food aid and any additional assistance be reinforced by agricultural policy reforms. “’No reform, no aid’” would be the ultimate objective. China, which has been pressing for economic reforms, should be enlisted to support this policy.  

To be sure, some will argue that Pyongyang will resist genuine reforms as these could serve to open up the system and undermine the Kim regime’s control. But without reforms, hunger will continue to afflict North Korea and donors that have grown fatigued by North Korea’s policies will become ever less likely to step in and fill the gaps. Emphasizing the need for reforms could also lend support to those North Koreans inside the system who might want to see seeds of change in their country.

How to help the hungriest and most vulnerable in North Korea’s population, namely those held in large political prisoner encampments, needs also to make its way onto the international agenda. Humanitarian organizations of course have to guard access for their aid, but they also need to react when former prisoners declare on the air: “We were always hungry and the guards always told us, ‘through hunger you will repent.’”[21] Organizations like FAO, the World Food Program and UNICEF as well as NGOs and the International Committee of the Red Cross should begin to strategize about how to promote access to starving imprisoned people. It is time for human rights and humanitarian groups to jointly coalesce behind saving lives and reaching people at risk.

World Food Day’s theme this year is “Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition.” It should be a catalyst for governments, UN agencies and NGOs to design ways that can reduce hunger in North Korea―not just in the immediate present, but over the longer term.

[1] See International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 11, acceded to by North Korea in 1981; and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25.

[2] See FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013, at

[3] See “EU to send aid to hungry North Koreans’ eating grass,”, July 5, 2011; and Joint Statement on the deteriorating food security situation in North Korea, Concern Worldwide et al, March 22, 2011.

[4] See UNICEF, “UN Agencies Urgently Require US $29.4 Million to Respond to Critical and Life-Saving Needs,” April 29, 2013, at; and ReliefWeb, “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; Key Humanitarian Messages,” March 15, 2013.

[5] Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, “North Korea Trend Analysis,” Good Friends Report, September 2013.

[6] Andrew Natsios, “North Korea: A Different Perspective,” CSIS, February 23, 2012.

[7] Robert Collins, “Continuity of Denial: Kim Jong-un’s Succession and North Korean Human Rights,” HRNK blog, August 11, 2013, at

[8] A UN appeal in 2013 for $147 million received only 27 percent, see UN News Centre, “UN agencies issue urgent funding appeal to meet critical needs in DPRKorea,” April 29, 2013.

[9] Robert Collins, Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012, pp. 1-5, 65-70. 

[10] Ibid. p. 67.

[11] Ven. Pomnyun Sunim; see also Randy Ireson, “Agricultural Reform Again – or Not,” 38 North, November 15, 2012.

[12] See Ireson, ibid; Marcus Noland, “Agricultural Reform in Our Own Style,” North Korea: Witness to Transformation, Peterson Institute for International Economics, November 5, 2012; and Robert Collins, “Continuity of Denial.”

[13] UN Human Rights Council, Resolution on Situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/HRC/22/L.19, March 21, 2013.

[14] David Hawk, “A United Nations Commission of Inquiry for North Korea,” 38 North, April 1, 2013.

[15] Oknam Yi and David Sungjae Hong, “Start Thinking Now About Transitional Justice in a Post-Transition North Korea,” PacNet #51, CSIS, July 11, 2013.

[16] Michael Kirby, Press Conference, Geneva, September 17, 2013; and Giles Hewitt, “North Korea urged to grant access to UN rights panel,” Agence France Presse, August 27, 2013.

[17] See UN General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Marzuki Darusman, A/HRC/22/57, February 1, 2013, paras. 6, 13 and Annex IA.

[18] UN, Web TV, Interim Report of COI, presented by Michael Kirby, at

[19] See David Hawk, Hidden Gulag, 2d edition, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012, pp. 31-2.

[20] US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: DPRK, Washington DC, 2013.

[21] “North Korean prisoner escaped after 23 brutal years,” December 2, 2012, at