PYONGYANG — News that North Korea had successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4th is one of several worrisome items to enter the news cycle in recent weeks. Another is the release of an American college student from North Korea after 17 months in detention. Otto Warmbler entered the country with the intention of staying five days. After he returned home in a coma and died within days, the lack of human rights within North Korea became even more glaringly apparent.
Human Rights Watch, an NGO that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, calls North Korea, “one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world.” It says that Kim Jong Un, the third-generation family ruler of North Korea, uses publication executions and forced labor to secure obedience from his citizens, and since consolidating power after the death of his father, who died in 2011, he has tightened travel restrictions out of the country.
A United Nations Commission of Inquiry in 2014 reports that, “systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations committed by the government … constituted crimes against humanity.” When considering human rights in North Korea, it may make more headlines to write about executions and forced labor, but what has the greatest impact on the day-to-day lives of its citizens is the right to food. It is also the area of human rights in North Korea over which other countries have any significant impact.
The same U.N. committee solicited expert testimony to address the right to food, as recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Earlier this year, the U.N.’s resident coordinator in North Korea reported that 10.5 million people, some 41 percent of the total population, are undernourished, and 18 million suffer from food insecurity. Perhaps as many as three million people died from starvation or hunger-related illnesses in the North Korean famine of the 1990s, so the right to food is critically important. What can be done for the people who suffer from under such a harsh regime?
Improving human rights in North Korea is complicated, due to geopolitics and a dangerous dictatorship. The United States views Kim Jong Un’s behavior as provocative and irrational, but historians see his behavior quite differently. He abuses his people to maintain his grip on power as his father and grandfather did before him. He behaves provocatively on the world stage to get attention, says James Person, a North Korean expert at the Wilson Center in Washington, and to, “get the U.S. to yield when it carries out some of its edgier provocations.”
Regardless of any particular action, the U.S. has informally followed a “hungry child” policy (“a hungry child knows no politics”) since the 1980s. The Congressional Research Service reports that the U.S. provided North Korea with more than $1.3 billion in food aid and energy assistance between 1995 and 2008.
Despite long-term food shortages, North Korea refused food aid from the U.S. in 2009. In 2011, though, the U.S. provided humanitarian assistance through Samaritan’s Purse to North Korea worth $900,000 — but no food — to help North Korean flood victims. In 2012, the U.S. violated the “hungry child” policy by canceling food the U.S. Agency for International Development intended to send when Pyongyang scheduled a nuclear launch, after promising to stop nuclear weapons testing. Then, in January 2017, one day before President Barack Obama left office and in response to a typhoon, the U.S. granted $1 million in humanitarian aid to North Korea.
In light of the ICBM launch, the spotlight once again turns from food aid meant to improve human rights in North Korea, to whether or not President Donald Trump is considering military action in response. In the meantime, the world is waiting and watching.
– Laurie Gold