The Arduous March: Was It a Man-Made Famine?

North Korea famine

Experts say yes, the effects of the Arduous March, which left up to 3.5 million people dead from starvation and related illnesses, could have been significantly lessened if the North Korean regime would have distributed international food aid to all political classes.

Joseph, a recent defector, is one victim of millions of the Kim regime.[1] He was a young teenager when his father passed away from starvation in North Korea. Joseph’s sister attempted to travel to China to earn money in order to provide food for him and her, because there was none in North Korea, but Joseph does not know if she was successful. At only thirteen years old, Joseph became an orphan on the streets and was forced to fend for himself. Joseph says he barely survived each day because he constantly had to search for food.[2] Fortunately, Joseph was eventually able to escape North Korea into China. Joseph’s escape from North Korea and starvation is an extremely rare feat for North Koreans. Tragically, though, many more people are currently starving or have died as a result of widespread famine in North Korea.

As Sung-Yoon Lee notes, “North Korea is the most industrialized, urbanized, literate country to undergo a famine,” which is also the “most unique aspect of North Korea.”[3] Unfortunately, North Korea’s uniqueness manifests itself yet again in a manner that negatively impacts a large percentage of its 24 million people. The famine in the 1990s is argued to be a man-made event, not in the sense that the Kim regime intentionally engineered the famine, but in the sense that the regime stood by and did nothing to alleviate the suffering of its people who lacked food while it [the regime] had the ability to provide for them.

Brief History

In substantial ways, the North Korean famine, which has come to be known as the Arduous March,[4] can be traced back to the Kim dynasty. The Kim dynasty has ruled North Korea for approximately 60 years since the start of the Korean War. It consists of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il, and grandson Kim Jong Un. Each Kim has fixated on dictating over a self-reliant country that takes no abuse from outside “aggressors,” such as the U.S. and Japan. This “juche” philosophy was first espoused by Kim Il Sung:

Juche was formulated to justify Kim Il Sung’s dictatorship and succession of power to his son, Kim Jong Il, emphasizing peculiar aspects of the North Korean environment…the ideology also serves as a tool that justifies the leader’s demand for the populace’s unquestionable loyalty…juche ideology is the ultimate paradigm that guides State activities.[5]

Overall, an incredible amount of North Korea’s power is derived from this skewed and wasteful national policy of regime control. The irony, however, is that North Korea is not self-reliant. This is made painfully obvious by the country’s inability – or unwillingness –  to fill the stomachs of its starving people without foreign aid. Despite this, the Kims continue to proclaim the idea of juche through the use of monumental propaganda campaigns amidst the prevalent starvation, abuse, and civil and political oppression of North Koreans.

Kim Il Sung’s descendant and son, Kim Jong Il, spent his life bolstering North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. From 1994 to 2011, “The Great Successor” ruled with an incredibly harsh iron fist and instituted disastrous economic policies. He spent a significant amount of North Korea’s treasure on nuclear programs rather than ensure his own people were fed.

The North Korean State managed to survive only because of the financial support of China and Russia. Kim Jong Il did not, however, pay back the loans from these allies, and therefore lenders soon stopped their ‘friendship prices’ with Kim.[6] “Without cheap fuel oil and raw material, the DPRK could not keep the factories running, which meant it had nothing to export. With no exports, there was no hard currency, and without hard currency, fuel imports fell even further and the electricity stopped.”[7] And so the cycle of the famine began.

“North Korea started running out of food, and as people went hungry, they didn’t have the energy to work and so output plunged even further.”[8] A defector living in North Korea during the time stated:

I think I lost my mind from dizziness, sleep deprivation, and hunger. My grandmother and my neighbors died of starvation. When you went into the cities, train stations, markets, and alleyways, you found lots of dead bodies. I do not know the exact number, but countless people died. Countless.[9]

Famine Characteristics

The North Korean State controls the amount of food that its people receive. People who grow crops must give most of it to the state, which then distributes food in a top-down approach. During the years of the Arduous March, however, there was not enough food to go around. This famine is believed to have occurred from 1994 to 1998 in North Korea. The estimated number of North Koreans who perished as a result of the famine varies widely, since the Kim regime controlled the access of information and reporting in the country. However, estimates of deaths due to hunger appear to range from 600,000 to 3 million people during this period.[10] Among deaths and hunger-related illnesses, estimates are anywhere from 240,000 to 3.5 million people out of a total population of 22 million.[11]

Unfortunately, the 1990s famine was not a single occurrence, since hunger has been a persistent problem for North Koreans for years. Every decade or so there is another famine. In 2009, a ROK Ministry of Unification survey found that of the North Korean refugees surveyed, 29.6% identified the greatest abuse of human rights in North Korean society as the famine.[12]

A study in 2011 by South Korean anthropologists of North Korean children who had defected to China found that 18-year-old males were 5 inches shorter than South Koreans their age. Roughly 45% of North Korean children under the age of five are stunted from malnutrition. Most people eat meat only on public holidays, namely Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-il’s birthdays. One report by the Tokyo Shimbun in April 2012 claimed that since the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011, around 20,000 people had starved to death in South Hwanghae Province. Another report by the Japanese Asia Press agency in January 2013 claimed that in North and South Hwanghae provinces more than 10,000 people had died of famine. Other international news agencies have begun circulating stories of cannibalism.[13] Currently, there are many North Koreans who are malnourished and starving.

Famine Causes

Most shockingly, however, is the probability that many people died during the 1990s famine because it was man-made. As Sung-Yoon Lee notes, North Korea sought international food aid for the first time in history in 1994, and a disastrous flood in the summer of 1995 exacerbated the hunger situation.[14] Based on the definitive book by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland,[15] although the regime had adequate food supplies due to international aid, it willfully denied its population available sustenance. Food was prioritized for soldiers, illustrating the reality of the regime’s “Military First” policies. Haggard and Noland argue that this willful denial of food by Kim Jong Il elevates to crimes against humanity.[16]

Stephan Haggard & Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (2009)

Of course, North Korea’s official position has always been that this famine was a result of U.S.-led sanctions for the last 60 years.[17] Nevertheless, Haggard and Noland point out that North Korea received billions of dollars in international aid that would have been enough to feed its starving population. The regime instead used aid to buy weapons and not food, and it even turned away international aid workers. Based on this information, North Korea has to be culpable for failing to prevent the starvation of its people; as a state, it should be obligated to ensure its people do not die of hunger if it is capable of preventing such a tragedy.

Prospects for Resolution

Interestingly, there are black market food stalls that have appeared throughout the famine years and onward due to the state’s inability (and unwillingness) to provide enough food. “Since the 1990s famine, the regime has tolerated informal food markets and small, private farm plots. When the official, state-run food market fails, which it inevitably does, the secondary market can keep people fed.”[18] Although these markets are technically illegal, enforcement is selective and the markets are only periodically regulated.

Thus far, Kim Jong Un has not shut down these secondary food sources, and for now he is allowing citizens to buy and sell goods in illegal markets. A “market” may only consist of an elderly woman with a small amount of food for sale, but it is better than nothing for hungry people, even though it’s illegal.

Since there have been food shortages in the past, it is likely there will be more in the future for North Korea since there are no signs of any substantial changes that might alter the economy. In fact, just last year the World Food Program “reported that food would be sent to North Korea as soon as possible. The food would be processed by a local processor and delivered directly to North Korean citizens.”[19] This indicates there are many North Koreans in dire need of sustenance in order to survive.

While the future of North Korea is unknown, a famine is surely not unrealistic. It could be triggered by severe drought, another flood, or even a desire by the Kim regime to divert more funds toward weapons instead of food production and distribution. However, the more famine that North Koreans experience, the harder it will be for the regime to ‘feed’ its citizens with lies that the American “imperialists” are to blame. Perhaps, even, a food shortage in North Korea will eventually lead to enough civil unrest that there will be a glimmer of hope and change in the Hermit Kingdom.


[1] Joseph, “My Life in North Korea:” A Testimony by Joseph, a North Korean Defector, The Fletcher School, March 28, 2013.

[2] Id.

[3] Sung-Yoon Lee, class discussion, April 16, 2013.

[4] Max Fisher, The Cannibals of North Korea, The Washington Post, February 5, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/02/05/the-cannibals-of-north-korea/.

[5] Dae-Kyu Yoon, The Constitution of North Korea: Its Changes and Implications, 27 Fordham Int’l L.J. 1289, 1291 (2004).

[6] BARBARA DEMICK, NOTHING TO ENVY: ORDINARY LIVES IN NORTH KOREA 67 (Spiegel & Grau 2009).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Unidentified defector’s statement, North Korea Undercover, BBC Panorama, April 15, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAG9kvep67E.

[10] Fisher, supra note 24.

[11] Wikipedia, North Korean Famine, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korean_famine.

[12] Songbun, supra note 2, at 86-87 (citing Lee Kum-sun, Kim Su-am, “Pukhan Inkwon Chimhae Kujo mit Kaeson Chollyak (North Korean Human Rights Abuse and Strategies for Improvement), Ministry of Unification (Seoul: Research Series 09-11, 2009)); see also id. at 104.

[13] Wikipedia, North Korean Famine, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korean_famine.

[14] Sung-Yoon Lee, class discussion, April 16, 2013.

[15] Stephan Haggard & Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (2009).

[16] Haggard & Noland, supra note 35, at 209.

[17] Sung-Yoon Lee, class discussion, April 16, 2013.

[18] Fisher, supra note 24.

[19] Wikipedia, North Korean Famine, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korean_famine.

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Human Rights in North Korea

Holding true to its uniqueness, North Korea interprets ‘human rights’ to mean national sovereignty, and it adamantly denies any accusations of human rights violations. Despite this complete denial, North Korea is arguably the worst violator of human rights in the world. In fact, it has been called “the last worst place on earth.”[1]

North Korean Perspective of Human Rights

North Korea operates under an entirely different perspective of human rights and sovereignty than many other countries. From North Korea’s standpoint, human rights are not inherent in individuals but granted by the state. “[A]s human rights
are guaranteed by sovereign States, any attempt to interfere in others’ internal affairs, overthrow the governments and change the systems on the pretext of human rights issues constitutes violations
of human rights. In this sense, the DPRK holds that human rights immediately mean national sovereignty.[2] In fact, “[t]he North Korean government has stressed that human rights should be primarily based on the protection of national sovereignty and collective rights, and that the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the State should be likewise emphasized.”[3]

In 
its 2009 report to the Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1, North Korean diplomats insisted, “[T]he DPRK holds that human rights immediately mean national sovereignty.” This is inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).[4]

“Of course, the regime’s view that international human rights values are anathema—and a direct threat—to its existence as a cohesive political structure may well be true if there is little genuine support
for the regime among its people. Freeing people from oppression is a core principle of human rights.”[5]

“North Korea’s 2009 Constitution also provides an interpretation of human rights at variance with international standards. On the one hand, the Constitution requires regime institutions to protect human rights norms. On the other hand, it proclaims that all institutions and people must ‘struggle actively against class enemies and all law offenders.’”[6] Not surprisingly, the Kim regime takes a harsh outlook toward states that request it be held accountable for human rights abuses. As is characteristic of the juche philosophy and propagandist-oriented ways, the North Korean government has stated that international attention to human rights abuses in North Korea is “‘a plot of propaganda fabricated and persistently pursued by hostile forces’ as part of their psychological warfare to ‘overthrow the State system of the country.’”[7]

Egregious Human Rights Violations

Despite its denial, North Korea’s deplorable human rights record is systematic, pervasive, and particularly egregious in North Korea.

George Orwell wrote, ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’ The North Korean boot has been stamping on human faces since 1953, almost with impunity from the international community, craven for a deal, some deal, any deal, with the totalitarian leadership.[8]

Since North Korea’s human rights abuses are numerous, only the songbun system and political prison camps are highlighted to illustrate the atrocities committed by the Kim regime.

a. Songbun

In an effort to outdo his Maoist and Leninist forebears, the Kim dynasty created a camp system whereby the so-called offender is not the only one condemned, not even the immediate family, but often the generation above and below. It is therefore common for those labeled with that totalitarian catch-all favorite of the Soviets and the Chinese, “enemies of the state,” to be small children and elderly grandparents.[9]

According to some, “[t]he most heinous example of…abuses is the North Korean camp system…This classification of people based on ideological trustworthiness determines a person’s fate from the time they are born.”[10] Songbun has been practiced since North Korea was created and “has played a major role in determining the main victims of the human rights violations
that are of concern to the U.N. General Assembly.”[11]

Robert Collins’ definitive piece, Marked for Life: SONGBUN, North Korea’s Social Classification System, illustrates the care and attention to detail that the North Korean regime takes in ensuring all of its citizens are identified as members of three distinct social castes, all hovering around perceived levels of regime loyalty. “Songbun subdivides the population of the country into 51 categories or ranks of trustworthiness and loyalty to the Kim family and North Korean state. These many categories are grouped into three broad castes: the core, wavering, and hostile classes.”[12]

The “state-published Political Dictionary states, ‘human rights are to be enforced through dictatorship against the class enemy.’ The songbun system has made the identity of these “class enemies” clear.[13] “The discrimination created by songbun ensures politically-directed denial of the right to make many of the decisions other countries assume to be a matter of individual prerogative—one’s occupation, spouse, housing, education, and medical treatment.”[14]

In a recent ROK Ministry of Unification survey where they were asked to identify the greatest abuse of human rights In North Korean society, North Korean refugees in the ROK answered: the famine (29.6%), public executions (22.6%), torture (19.1%), discrimination based in songbun (18.3%), lack of freedom of movement (6.1%), and lack of freedom to communicate (2.1%). However, among party members from that group, 66.7% insisted songbun was the greatest tool of abuse of North Korean human rights.[15]

b. Political Prison Camps, aka Gulags

Another egregious and more visible violation of human rights and international criminal law by the Kim regime is the establishment and operation of political prison camps, also known as gulags, in which political prisoners are enslaved for any perceived threat to the Kim regime. “North Korea’s State Security Agency maintains a dozen political prisons and about 30 forced labor and labor education camps, mainly in remote areas.”[16]

Not long ago, a newspaper article told the story of former political prisoner Shin Dong-hyuk’s experience living in one of North Korea’s political prison camps. Shin said that due to the rampant starvation, fellow prisoners were ‘happy’ when one of them died because it meant more food. He recounted having to eat rats and corn kernels from animal feces as well.[17] And thanks to his incredible journey and illuminating book, Escape from Camp 14, the world knows a little more about Shin’s tragic upbringing in one of these gulags:

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a prison camp in North Korea. ‘Guilt-by-association’ (with his parents) meant that he faced a lifetime of imprisonment. He was tortured along with his father. He was forced to watch the execution of his mother and his brother. He witnessed the deaths of many children under the impossible demands of forced labor.[18]

These gulags, where political prisoners are starved, tortured, and worked to death, have accounted for over 1 million deaths.[19] This figure does not factor in recent intelligence and aerial satellite imagery that shows that the gulags in North Korea are far larger than previously known. Amnesty International estimates conservatively that Kim’s gulags now imprison at least 200,000 people for political reasons. David Hawk’s 2012 and 2003 reports call for the dismantlement of these prisons.[20]

Conclusion

The DPRK has signed onto several human rights treaties, including the ICCPR and ICESCR, but has proven through egregious human rights violations such as songbun and gulags, that its signature has no merit. The fact that the international community knows strikingly little about the North Korea’s human rights abuses – because it intentionally keeps its borders closed off to the world – is in itself evidence that there are potential human rights violations, if none other than the violation of the right to information. In time, hopefully the regime will collapse.

It is not easy to predict when change will come. It was not foreseen that the Berlin Wall would fall when it did, that the Soviet Union would collapse, and that reforms would take place in Arab countries. But bringing down the information wall around North Korea and exposing its crimes against humanity may in time lead to change.[21]


[1] Jack Rendler, North Korea: The Last Worst Place On Earth, Amnesty International: Human Rights Now Blog, May 11, 2011, http://networkedblogs.com/hJTyR.

[2] Robert Collins, Marked for Life: SONGBUN, North Korea’s Social Classification System, 90-91 (HRNK, 2012) (hereinafter “Songbun”) (citing DPRK National Report Submitted in Accordance with Paragraph 15(A) of the Annex to Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1, Human Rights Council, Working group on the Universal Periodic Review, Sixth Session, Geneva, 30 November-11 December 2009, A/HRC/WG.6/6/PRK/1, 27 August 2009, 4).

[3] In Sup Han, The 2004 Revision of Criminal Law in North Korea: A Take-Off?, 5 Santa Clara J. Int’l L. 122, 130-31 (2006).

[4] Songbun, supra note 2, at 92; see Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, Sixth session, Geneva, 30 November-11 December 2009
National Report Submitted In Accordance With Paragraph 15 (A) Of The Annex To Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1,* Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (A/HRC/WG.6/6/PRK/1, 27 August 2009), Section 15. URL: http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G09/151/47/PDF/G0915147.pdf?OpenElement.  

[5] Songbun, supra note 2, at 93.

[6] Id. at 88 (citing Sin, “North Korean Constitution—April 2009.”); see also p. 63 (analyzing North Korea’s criminal code).

[7] Id. at 131.

[8] Lamont Colucci, As the World Watches, North Korean Atrocities Unfold, US News World Report, April 19, 2013, http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/world-report/2013/04/19/north-koreas-forgotten-story.

[9] Songbun, supra note 2, at 87.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at iii.

[13] Songbun, supra note 2, at 93.

[14] Id. at 87.

[15] Id. at 86-87 (citing Lee Kum-sun, Kim Su-am, “Pukhan Inkwon Chimhae Kujo mit Kaeson Chollyak (North Korean Human Rights Abuse and Strategies for Improvement), Ministry of Unification (Seoul: Research Series 09-11, 2009); see also id. at 104.

[16] Robert Windrem, Death, terror in N. Korea gulag, NBC NEWS online, January 15, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/3071466/ns/us_news-only/t/death-terror-n-korea-gulag/#.UXdWaL_3DKE.

[17] Editorial, North Korean Political Prison Camps Growing – Amnesty, BBC News (Asia-Pacific), May 3, 2011,

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13272198.

[18] Rendler, supra note 1.

[19] Wikipedia, Human Rights in North Korea, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_North_Korea.

[20] David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag Second Edition, April 10, 2012, http://hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/HRNK_HiddenGulag2_Web_5-18.pdf.

[21] Roberta Cohen, North Korea Faces Heightened Human Rights Scrutiny, March 21, 2013, Brookings, http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/03/21-north-korea-cohen