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SAN FRANCISCO, Aug 1 2004 (IPS) - On July 22, 2004, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed the North Korea Human Rights Act (NKHRA), writes Christine Ahn, who coordinates the Economic and Social Human Rights Programme at the Institute for Food and Development Policy and is a member of the Korea Solidarity Committee of the San Francisco Bay Area. In this article, the author writes that the bill was backed by a coalition of right-wing evangelical Christian groups and pro-war thinktanks that believe the collapse of the regime will usher in freedom for North Koreans. It demonstrates US policymakers\’ complete ignorance of North Korea, the conditions that have caused famine there, and the ensuing human rights crisis. The NKHRA is based on the assumption that the famine in North Korea was a result of Kim Jong Il\’s mismanagement of the country. Most experts, on the other hand, agree that the main causes of famine were a series of catastrophic events beyond North Korea\’s control: the collapse of the Soviet Union, which brought an end the shipments of oil needed to run tractors and other agricultural machinery, and a series of the historic droughts and floods. A letter signed by over 100 NGOs states that the bill would not improve human rights but would further hinder international humanitarian aid and negotiations for peace on the Korean peninsula.
From the mid 1990s to early this century, the famine in North Korea displaced over 5 million people and ravaged 17 percent of the population. A documentary filmmaker who travelled the country extensively said it was impossible to describe what he saw, that ”it was worse than war.”
Today, the arduous march appears to have finally passed. Even the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports that 2003- 2004 was the best harvest North Korea had in nine years. But they are still facing a food deficit of 944,000 tons of food, meaning that at least 6.5 million North Koreans will go hungry this year.
Washington, however, has a different idea for what North Koreans need.
On July 22, 2004, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the North Korea Human Rights Act (NKHRA) to ”improve” the human rights conditions of North Koreans. The bill was introduced by Iowa Republican Jim Leach and backed by a coalition of right-wing evangelical Christian groups and pro-war thinktanks, including the Defense Forum Foundation, that believe the collapse of the regime bring freedom to North Koreans. Its Senate counterpart, the North Korea Freedom Act, has been said to read like a manual to topple the North Korean regime.
This bill will make USD 24 million dollars in taxpayer funds annually available to US-based NGOs working on improving the human rights of North Koreans. It will also expand radio service to North Korea, strengthen monitoring of humanitarian aid to North Korea, and permit North Korean defectors to apply for asylum in the US.
This bill demonstrates US policymakers’ complete ignorance of North Korea, the conditions that have caused famine there, and the ensuing human rights crisis.
The NKHRA is based on the assumption that the famine in North Korea was a result of Kim Jong Il’s mismanagement of the country. However, most experts agree that the main cause of famine was a series of catastrophic events beyond North Korea’s control. The first was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which brought an end the shipments of oil needed to run tractors and other agricultural machinery. The second cause was the historic droughts and floods that destroyed 300,000 hectares of agricultural land and devastated 1.9 million tons of grain.
Ironically, the most vocal opposition to the NKHRA has come from a wide spectrum of South Korean human rights groups, including Sarangbang for Human Rights, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and Good Friends, a respected humanitarian organisation that has worked mostly with North Korean refugees.
A letter signed by over 100 NGOs states that the bill would not improve human rights but rather would further hinder international humanitarian aid and negotiations for peace on the Korean peninsula. According to the widely-respected March 2004 report by Good Friends, ”We cannot separate the problem of human rights from the food shortage. The human rights improvement that North Korean residents want most is large-scale humanitarian food aid before anything else.”
Although food aid should not come with strings attached, the NKHRA stipulates that before more aid is given, the US government would need assurances about the North’s improvements in human rights.
Since 1995, the United States has provided about 1.9 million tons of food aid to North Korea. When the Bush administration took office, food aid to that country dropped from 500,000 to about 100,000 tonnes per year, clearly as a result of it political agenda. Undersecretary of State John Bolton characterised the Bush administration’s aim as follows: ”the end of North Korea”.
The monitoring of humanitarian aid, strangely, seems less of an issue to the relief agencies providing the aid. In 2003, James Morris, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: ”It would be wrong for me to depict the regime in Pyongyang as totally uncooperative,” he said, noting that the WFP staff have access to 85 percent of the population and that they ”believe that most food is getting through to the women and children who need it”.
A recent study by UNICEF showed that food aid is reaching the most vulnerable North Koreans. From 1998 to 2002, the number of underweight children dropped by two-thirds, acute malnutrition was almost cut in half, and chronic malnutrition dropped by one-third. Caritas International, the largest private humanitarian network in North Korea, is confident that food aid is reaching the most needy.
On a recent trip to North Korea, I expected to find a depressed society completely devoid of foreigners, but this was not at all the case. I met many conservation agriculturalists from around the world who were working with the government to move their food production to a more sustainable, less energy-intensive model. In fact, Theodor Friedrich, a senior agriculturalist with FAO who has visited North Korea five times, said: “I always compare DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea) with countries in Africa and Latin America. In any African of Latin American country, malnourishment is much more visible and omni-present than in DPRK”.
Friedrich also said that food security for an isolated DPRK would always be a very difficult challenge. Once North Korea reunifies with South Korea, historically the country’s breadbasket, food security will be less of an issue. But in the meantime, if Americans truly care about the human rights of North Koreans, we should first understand that underlying the crisis is the food shortage and then demand the US government sign a permanent peace treaty and end 50 years of economic sanctions. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)
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