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Report Links North Korea's Food Shortages to Human Rights Abuses

The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea says Pyongyang's human rights abuses are exacerbating the country's food shortages. The charges came in a new report issued Thursday in Washington.

For the last decade, North Korea has received international food aid.

"It's hard to imagine a society that was accountable to its people, that allowed them to organize, that allowed them to express their needs, that would find itself in this circumstance after 10 years, 10 years into the famine," said Professor Stephan Haggard, co-author of a new report called Hunger and Human Rights: the Politics of Famine in North Korea.

Professor Haggard estimates that as many as one million people have died from the famine. He said about one-fourth of North Korea's population, or more than five million people, depends on food aid. He blames Pyongyang for prolonging what he calls the country's chronic food shortages. He says they have persisted long after when North Korea should have recovered from the initial famine, which was openly reported in 1995.

"This can't be the result of weather," added Professor Haggard. "This can't be the result of short-term factors. This can't be the result of external pressures. Something much more fundamental is at work. And we believe this has to do, not just with the way the economy is run, but the way the polity of North Korea is structured."

One example he pointed to is that Pyongyang has been blocking international humanitarian efforts to deliver aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans.

"Among the type of barriers that have been put on the operation of the international community are limitations on the number of monitors," he added. "For example, the World Food Program [WFP] has about 50 monitors in a country that's about the size of the state of Louisiana. Imagine a relief effort in Louisiana today with [only] about 50 foreign specialists."

Another issue raised by the report is the diversion of food aid, which Professor Haggard says includes as much as 30 percent of the international assistance that goes into the country. He says North Korea's military and elites are responsible for taking the food and selling it for profit.

"Much of the diversion that is taking place, is both decentralized and is going, not just to the military, but increasingly, into the market," said Professor Haggard. "And it's this marketization of diversion, if we can call it that, that's one of the most intriguing phenomenons about the current North Korean economy."

In conclusion, Professor Haggard urged the international community to continue engaging Pyongyang and providing food aid. At the same time, though, he called on international negotiators to include a "human rights component" in their strategy with North Korea, as a way to ensure that the country is using the international food aid it receives to actually feed its people.