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North Korea Withholding Food Aid From People, Say Defectors - 2002-02-08

An international conference on human rights in North Korea opens Saturday in Tokyo. North Korean defectors attending the gathering say that Pyongyang is withholding international food aid from the nation's hungry people.

Lee Young Kuk was in North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's personal squadron of guards for more than a decade. After trying to defect, he served six years in a camp for political prisoners before escaping to Seoul in the year 2000.

At a Tokyo news conference Friday ahead of an international conference on North Korean Human Rights, he said that Pyongyang is not distributing much of the food donated by international donors such as the U.N. World Food Program. The isolated communist country is suffering from drought and a severe food shortage and an unknown number of people have already died of starvation.

Mr. Lee said he is convinced that the food aid has not actually reached the North Korean people who are in need. Instead, he said that the food is going to the military to strengthen its power.

Mr. Lee and several other defectors told journalists that rice and other food is temporarily given to North Korea citizens when international monitors from aid agencies are present, but that most of it is eventually taken away. He also said that Pyongyang is holding a large amount of the aid in warehouses to ensure that government officials and the military have sufficient food stocks in case the country should go to war.

Jack Rendler is a spokesman for the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and a speaker at the Tokyo conference. He said that while a limited amount of food aid is getting through to the North Korean people, it is impossible to track the entire stock because of severely limited access. "The bottom line is that we cannot get into North Korea to do substantive, comprehensive analysis of what is going on," he explained, "and the fact that no one can get in there and take a look at thing is deep cause for concern."

In addition to examining the issue of food aid, the two-day conference in Tokyo will also look at the issue of prison camps in North Korea, where an unknown number of political prisoners are thought to be held.

Former prisoners taking part in the conference will testify on the conditions there, which they say are deplorable. The attendees will also discuss the growing number of North Koreans who are escaping to China. Defectors at the conference say that their human rights are frequently violated when they arrive in China, and that trafficking in female defectors is a grave problem.