Failing to Protect: Food Shortages and Prison Camps in North Korea*

By Liang-Fenton, Debra | Asian Perspective, April 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Failing to Protect: Food Shortages and Prison Camps in North Korea*


Liang-Fenton, Debra, Asian Perspective


This article has three purposes: first, to lay out two of the areas of most serious human rights concern regarding North Korea, namely, the chronic food shortage crisis afflicting the country and the prison camp system; second, to characterize the main aspects of the problem; and third, to present recommendations on what should be done. The information comes directly from three reports of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (USCHRNK).

Key words: North Korea, human rights-East Asia

North Korea's Food Shortage Problem

The notion of famine conjures up disturbing images of emaciated people and wasting, listless children. Confronted with the devastating impact of inadequate caloric intake on the human body, one's understandable impulse is to think of famine in terms of physical shortages of food supplies. Yet in the contemporary world, the sources of food insecurity increasingly can be traced not to natural causes but to human ones. Today there is no reason for anyone to starve as a result of weather conditions, food shortages, or even failures in distribution. Global food supplies are adequate. Information on weather patterns and crop conditions is now readily available, providing an effective early warning system for potential shortfalls and crises. Global markets for basic grains are well developed and highly integrated, and the world community has developed a well-institutionalized system of humanitarian assistance.

A series of international covenants have made explicit the commitment to a world without hunger. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined the right to adequate food. The 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) elaborated this commitment as "the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger." At the 1996 World Food Summit, official delegations from 185 countries, including representatives from the governments of the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (the DPRK or North Korea), reaffirmed "the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free of hunger."1

When initially articulated, these rights looked more like pious wishes than achievable objectives. But an effective set of global institutions is now capable of making these political commitments viable by soliciting food contributions and delivering emergency assistance to populations facing distress from natural disasters and economic dislocation. With effective institutions and adequate physical supplies, the occurrence of famine increasingly signals not the lack of food or capacity, but some fundamental political or governance failure. Natural conditions are no longer our primary adversaries; humans are.

The case of North Korea, where a chronic food emergency is well into its second decade, is an egregious example of this phenomenon. Although estimates vary widely, a famine in the mid- 1990s killed as many as one million North Koreans, or roughly five percent of the population. Millions more were left to contend with broken lives and personal misery. Particularly worrisome are the long-term effects-including irreversible ones-on the human development of infants and children.

When the food crisis began, access to food came through a public distribution system (PDS) controlled by the regime, and entitlements were a function of political status. As the socialist economy crumbled and markets developed in response to the state's inability to fulfill its obligations under the old social compact, the character of the crisis changed. Current shortages bear closer resemblance to food emergencies in market and transition economies, where access to food is determined by one's capacity to command resources in the marketplace. This type of emergency is no less severe, but poses different challenges to outside donors.

The world community responded to this tragedy with considerable generosity, committing more than $2 billion in food aid to the country over the past decade.

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Failing to Protect: Food Shortages and Prison Camps in North Korea*
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