Wednesday 20 March 2013

Cannibalism in North Korea

Cannibalism in North Korea
There’s a group of very brave people in North Korea working clandestinely as journalists. They were trained and are sponsored by AsiaPress, based in Japan, and if they are caught they face imprisonment, starvation, and worse in North Korea’s system of punitive prison camps. The people they interview are also very brave (for information on the prison camps, contact me at for a copy of my unpublished article “State Enslavement in North Korea”.)
Based on these journalists’ work, AsiaPress issued a report in January 2013 “Report on the Famine in the Hwanghae Provinces and the Food Situation 2012”. You can find the report here: . The North and South Hwanghae provinces are very close to the capital, Pyongyang, and that appears to be their misfortune. Since he succeeded his deceased father as North Korea’s leader in late 2011, Kim Jong-un has decided to spruce up Pyongyang with massive building projects, including enormous high rise towers, an aquarium for dolphins, and a huge amusement park. These projects require thousands and thousands of construction workers, who must be fed. Kim Jong-un also has to make sure two key constituencies who support his rule are well fed; the people of Pyongyang, and the military. (Though he isn’t doing too well with the military: the AsiaPress report includes a photo of tiny—probably previously malnourished--starving soldiers.)
Starving North Korean soldiers, Asia Press
Lately the food for these three groups of people comes from Hwangwe provinces, known as the breadbasket of  North Korea, where despite horrendously inefficient agricultural policies the people are usually not likely to starve. AsiaPress’ reporters have talked to people from the two provinces and done statistical calculations, and come to the conclusion that last year between January and May, at least 10,000 people died there. There was no grass on the ground in the spring because people were picking every shoot and eating it. Entire families were dying, and people were abandoning their elderly parents and young children.
The witnesses also reported hearing rumors of cannibalism. One frequently reported story was of a man who was executed after his wife came home to discover he had killed their children and was cooking their flesh, telling her proudly that he had procured some meat. Another story was of a grandfather who dug up his deceased grandchild and ate the remains. Another man killed eleven people and then sold their flesh as pork in the marketplace: he was also executed
These may sound as if they are just rumors, but cannibalism was verified in North Korea during the famine of the 1990s (there were verified reports of  “special meat” being sold in the markets during the 1990s famine). People do eat each other when they are starving: at a certain point your  morality gives way and all you can think of is food.  There are verified stories of cannibalism from other famines, for example the Ukrainian famine in the Soviet Union in 1932-33, in which about 3 million people starved to death in Ukraine alone, and perhaps another million in Kazakhstan. Cannibalism is something people don’t want to think about, but it happens. In North Korea, the cause is not individual criminals (though the government executes them as such) but deliberate state policy that undermines agricultural production and steals food from farmers.
The system in North Korea is that farmers have to give a fixed amount of harvest to the state, regardless of how big or small the harvest is and how much is left over for farmers to feed themselves and their families. Last year, there just wasn’t enough food left over in these two provinces once the state had collected its share. Soldiers guarded the fields and threshing floors to make sure the farmers did not take any food during the harvest. And they went into people’s dwellings to remove any food they had in their larders or even hidden in toilets. Apparently when Kim Jong-un was told people were starving in Hwangwe provinces, he ordered a little food to be sent to them, but then forgot about them.
In passing: Recently Dennis Rodman, one of the stars of the Chicago Bulls basketball team in the 1990s, visited North Korea to hang out with Kim Jong-un. I’m not exactly a huge basketball fan, but I used to enjoy watching Rodman and his cross-dressing antics. No longer. Now Rodman is  defending Kim, saying he’s just a kid, a regular guy, while Kim steals food from peasants. Rodman ought to be ashamed of himself. Or he could redeem himself by using his popularity and visits to TV shows to tell the truth about the “regular guy” he visited. The proper place for Kim Jong-un to be is in a jail cell at The Hague awaiting trial in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity; it’s not hanging out with American basketball stars in Pyongyang.
For more information on North Korea’s famines, see my article “State-Induced Famine and Penal Starvation in North Korea,” Genocide Studies and Prevention, vol.7, nos. 2/3, August/December 2012), pp. 147-75.

Monday 11 March 2013

Hugo Chavez and the Right to Food in Venezuela

Hugo Chavez and the Right to Food in Venezuela
Hugo Chavez, Getty Images, retrieved from
Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela since 1999, died on March 5, 2013. I’ve been reading about Chávez lately as part of my big research project on state food crimes. I was interested in him because Chávez seemed to be a political leader who really cared about the poor, yet by the time of his death he was overseeing policies that meant the poor were becoming worse off.
In 2003 Chávez started “missions” (misiones) to improve the health, education, and nutritional status of Venezuela’s poor. He established a network of state-owned stores (Mercals) where people could buy food at subsidized prices, often as low as 40 per cent of the market price; by 2007 about nine million people out of a total population of 28 million shopped at the Mercals. He also instituted a system of community kitchens where local women cooked meals for those who couldn’t cook for themselves, and he vastly expanded the program of school meals, eventually providing breakfast, lunch and snacks for almost four million children. He funded all these programs with Venezuela’s vast oil wealth.
All these sound like wonderful policies, and in fact, World Bank data show that the health of Venezuelans improved under Chávez’s rule. Inequality was also reduced. The poor showed their appreciation by re-electing Chávez several times, most recently in autumn 2012- or at least, so we think. Venezuela’s more recent elections were “free, but not fair”. Chávez manipulated the elections by hogging air time and denying his opponents access to the media; by threatening to fire public sector workers who didn’t vote for him; and by controlling the electoral commission.  So it’s not altogether sure that the poor, as a group, supported him. Some didn’t, because Chávez tended to hand out goodies such as housing to his supporters. Nevertheless, the missions he started were so popular that the opposition had to assure the people that it would continue them once in power, only more efficiently.
By the time Chávez died, there were severe food shortages in Venezuela.  In order to provide enough cheap food, Chávez imposed price controls on food producers, distributors and retailers. These controls meant that many people were expected to produce and sell food below the costs of production.  Chávez also threatened to imprison private food producers and retailers who sold food above the control price. As a result, many farmers, ranchers, importers of food, and retailers simply went out of business,
Add to this Chávez’s habit of nationalizing farms and ranches.  The nationalized farms and ranches did not produce as much food as the privately-owned ones had done. Chávez tried to promote more independent peasant production by redistributing nationalized land to ordinary Venezuelan citizens, but he didn’t make sure that these new peasant farmers had the supports they needed, such as agricultural credits.
Chávez ran these missions on his own: they weren’t subjected to the normal administrative oversight of government departments. He used oil wealth from Venezuela’s national oil industry, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) to finance them. The result was the PDVSA did not have enough resources for reinvestment and maintenance, and oil production declined. So Venezuela had to go into more and more debt to import more and more food.
By the time of Chávez’s death, severe shortages compromised the right to food in Venezuela. People had to line up for hours, or go from one Mercal to another, to find the inexpensive food they needed. Meanwhile, wealthier people could buy uncontrolled food products, such as cheese instead of milk, although in the last year of his rule Chávez imposed controls on hundreds more food items.
Plus, the economy was in such bad shape, with heavy borrowing and less and less oil produced, that Venezuelans’ long-run food security was also undermined: there was less money to import the food that Venezuelans were no longer producing. There will be an election in Venezuela for a new president in April 2013. Unless the new president makes the missions more efficient, lets government ministries oversee them, and rectifies the problems of under-performing nationalized industries, food shortages are likely to continue. And unless the managers of the PDVSA are allowed to do their job efficiently and retain money for reinvestment and repairs, there will be less oil to buy food.
Hugo Chávez improved Venezuelans’ right to food in the short run, but at the price of long-run food security.  To make sure that citizens’ basic needs are fulfilled, you can’t just redistribute resources, you have to have an efficient economy that will ensure the resources are always there.
If you’d like to read my (draft) chapter on Chávez and the right to food, email me at and I will send it to you.

Friday 1 March 2013

Cameron at Amritsar: Not Quite an Apology

(Note: a slightly altered version of this blog was published as an editorial in The Indian Express (Delhi) February 25, 2013: I am posting it in the blog with the permission of the editor)
On February 20, 2013 Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain visited the site of the 1919 Amritsar Massacre, where the British Brigadier-General Reginald E.H. Dyer fired on peaceful protesters, officially killing about 400 and possible killing as many as a thousand.  Cameron referred to the massacre as a “shameful event.” Since then many commentators in India and Britain have been discussing whether this was an apology and whether it should have been one.
A good political apology has several characteristics: it acknowledges the facts of the event, expresses sorrow and remorse, takes responsibility for the harm done, and promises non-repetition.  Cameron acknowledged the massacre and expressed sorrow by using the word “shameful.”  He did not, however, take responsibility for the harm done, implying that the UK government of the time had done so, condemning the massacre in 1920 and dismissing Brigadier-General Dyer. Nor did he promise non-repetition, which is unnecessary, as Britain is no longer the colonial ruler of India.  In a full political apology, though, Cameron would actually have used words such as “sorry” or “I apologize.” And the British government would have negotiated the words of the apology with the Indian government ahead of time. 
David Cameron outside the Golden Temple during a February 2013 visit
to the site of the Amritsar Massacre, retrieved from
A good political apology also contains symbolic, ceremonial and ritual elements that show sincerity. Cameron’s words and actions did seem to be sincere. He was the first sitting British Prime Minister to ever visit the site of the massacre, a symbolic event in itself. As a mark of respect he adopted partial Sikh dress for the occasion, appearing in a turban and shawl. He laid a wreath on the memorial and he observed a minute of silence—both Western symbols of mourning. Some reports said he got down on his knees or “bent on his knees.” To kneel is a very powerful act in Western culture, as shown when Chancellor Willy Brandt of Germany went down on his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto—where Polish Jews had been held by the Nazis before being transported to extermination camps—in 1970.
No doubt Cameron chose his words carefully before he arrived at Amritsar. Someone must have found the 1920 quote from then Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill describing the massacre as monstrous (it’s surprising that Churchill said this, as he was an unrepentant colonialist, as shown by his indifference to the 1943 famine in Bengal). And because there are still living descendants of the victims at Amritsar, Cameron and his government might have been afraid that they would ask for compensation if he actually offered an apology. Recently, a group representing the Kenyan “Mau Mau” nationalist victims of the British in the 1950s were granted the right to pursue their claims for reparations in British courts. This might be why Cameron said he saw no point in reaching back in time to apologize for distant events that had occurred, in the case of Amritsar, long before he was born. His message was probably carefully calibrated to avoid legal liability.
During the same visit, David Cameron lays a wreath at the site
of the Amritsar Massacre, retrieved from
Some newspaper reports suggested that the real reason Cameron expressed sorrow was to help the Conservative Party gain votes from the 800,000-strong British Sikh community. The Sikh vote is particularly important in marginal ridings in London and Leicester. If this was one of his motives, it is similar to an “apology” that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, also a Conservative, delivered to a group of Indo-Canadians in 2008. On May 23, 1914, 376 Sikh would-be immigrants arrived in Vancouver on the ship the Komagata Maru. The Canadian authorities refused to allow the passengers to land and they were returned to India, where 38 people were killed and many more were imprisoned or transported.  Many commentators thought that Harper offered this apology because he was wooing the Indo-Canadian vote. In any event, his remarks seemed rather off-hand. Some felt that he should have apologized from the floor of the House of Parliament, as former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney did in 1988 when apologizing for the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII, and as Harper himself did in 2008 when apologizing to aboriginal Canadians.
Cameron’s words in the visitor’s book were more than the Queen said when she visited Amritsar, merely calling the massacre a “distressing” episode, according to an article in the Indian Express commenting on Cameron’s visit. Like Cameron, the Queen must choose her words very carefully. When she visited South Africa, another former colony, in 1999, she said “we should remember with sadness the loss of life and suffering” of both blacks and whites during the Boer War. This might be seen as a form of acknowledgement or even regret, but it was certainly not an apology for the British war against the Dutch-origin Boers; moreover, the Queen did not go so far as to apologize for British conquest and maltreatment of Black South Africans.  
 So Cameron’s remarks and gestures weren’t quite an apology. They are probably as close as India and Sikhs worldwide will get to an apology, though.