Defining Genocide Down

The president of the Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, is calling for a historical reappraisal of one of the last century’s darkest events:

Yushchenko was addressing a candlelight ceremony marking the 1932-33 famine induced by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s orders to requisition grain and break the spirit of Ukraine’s “kurkuly” farmers who resisted his drive to collectivise agriculture. The day had been chosen as the official commemoration day for the famine that was never recognised by the Soviet Union. The president told 5,000 people in a Kiev square that up to 10 million died in the famine and pressed his case for the United Nations to declare it a genocide. Historians’ estimates put the figure at about 7.5 million.
. . . .

Mourners placed 33,000 candles in Mykhailov Square, corresponding to the number of lives the famine claimed daily at its height. Flags on public buildings bore black ribbons. The sound of a young woman wailing wafted through loudspeakers and the names of countless victims were read out. The systematic confiscation of grain and livestock in Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, left millions to die in their homes or in the street, with soldiers dumping bodies into pits. Cannibalism became rife.

The definitive history of the Ukrainian famine is the British historian Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow. I’ve previously noted some basis for comparison between the Ukraine’s famine–so infamously denied in Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer-winning reports for the New York Times–with the famine in North Korea. [This piece on Duranty and efforts to pull his Pulitzer, from the Columbia Journalism review, is a must-read].

But Is It Really Genocide?

I’ve already tabulated the differing estimates for the death toll from the North Korean famine. Those which come from reliable sources range from as low as 600,000 to as high as 3.5 million. The former figure, which is Marcus Noland’s low-range estimate (his high-range estimate is one million), may be understated because it likely fails to consider deaths from opportunistic diseases, or deaths by those who fled the famine-stricken areas and were thus not recorded in official records. The latter figure, from Medicins Sans Frontieres researcher Fiona Terry, may overrepresent areas that were more severely affected by the famine. The more objectively likely figure is Andrew Natsios’s estimate of 2.5 million dead, which is an aggregate of refugee interviews, statistically controlled projections, and census data from North Korean county offices, which Natsios generally trusts.

The lawyer’s frustration about the famine in the Ukraine–and that in North Korea, if the facts ultimately show a similar degree of malice aforethought–is that neither fits the internationally accepted legal definition of “genocide.” For the same reason, nor does Hitler’s persecution of homosexuals, nor the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. All of these are examples of persecution on the basis of imputed membership in political and social groups, which don’t fit the definition in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (right sidebar, under “Resources”), which defines “genocide” this way:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring a out its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.’

Thus, mass starvation of Christians or Albanians would count; the persecution of the Falun Gong probably also qualifies; mass starvation of Ukrainian kulaks or North Koreans classified as “hostile” would not. We owe that distinction to Stalin himself, writes the scholar Martin Shaw:

In the UN debate before the Convention was agreed [in 1948], Soviet representatives succeeded in excluding political groups from the list of those protected; as Leo Kuper (1981: 39) writes, this is a ‘major omission’. Social classes were also left out.

Stalin, who pioneered the use of famine against “hostile” political and social groups, had ample reason to define genocide down. Shaw continues:

The Convention said that genocide was about the destruction of national, ethnic, racial and religious groups. It excluded the annihilation of groups defined by other characteristics such as class or political affiliation – so that Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks (or ‘rich’ peasants: Episode III) and eastern European political elites could not be counted. But in the same year that the United Nations adopted the genocide convention, it also adopted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. From a universal human standpoint, it is clearly untenable to lay down that the destruction and mass killing of some sorts of human group (races, nations or religions) should be regarded as a particularly heinous crime, while that of others (classes, professions or political groups) should not. Yet the restrictive international definition gives special status to the former groups.

Professor, blogger, and friend of OFK Rudy Rummel applies the term “democide” to state-engineered mass-killings, thus circumventing the Genocide Convention’s parsing. This excellent discussion by Professor Yaroslav Bilinski continues the discussion of whether the Famine of 1933 was a genocide. Other governments have been accused of using the same tactic–most notably, the now-deposed Marxist government of Ethiopia, whose own collectivization program was one cause of the famine that inspired Live Aid.

Stalin, the Kims, and Class

Starvation in North Korea is largely a matter of political classification, and to some extent, of geographic misfortune (see the subheading on “triage” at this post). North Korea’s political classification system is quite complex, as this fascinating testimony from uber-connected Pentagon analyst Katie Hassig tells us, but that system can be generalized into three main groups:

Since the 1950s, the Kim regime has subjected its people to a series of political examinations in order to sort out those who are presumed to be loyal or disloyal to the regime. After a three-year period of examination that began in 1967, then-president Kim Il-sung reported to the Fifth Korean Workers’ Party Congress in 1970 that the people could be classified into three political groups: a loyal “core class,” a suspect “wavering class,” and a politically unreliable “hostile class.”

For an even more detailed tabulation of all 51 subcategories, get a load of this. But North Korea did not invent political classification. Stalinism also placed Soviet citizens into political categories based on pre-revolutionary class:

The peasantry was tentatively divided into three broad categories: bednyaks, or poor peasants, seredniaks, or medium-prosperity ones, and kulaks, the rich farmers. In addition, there was a category of batraks, or landless agriculture workers for hire (farm hands).

After the Russian Revolution, Bolsheviks considered only batraks and bednyaks as true allies of the proletariat. Serednyaks were considered unreliable, “hesitating” allies, and kulaks were class enemies by definition. However, often those declared to be kulaks were not especially prosperous. Both peasants and Soviet officials were often uncertain what constituted a kulak, and the term was often used to label anyone who used hired labor or had more property than considered “norm” according to some criteria.

Class and the Disparate Impact of the North Korean Famine

Numerous international aid organizations have taken note of great class-based disparities in the distribution of food aid. Most of the best-known humanitarian organizations have expressed their concern over this disparity. The most circumspect of these is Amnesty International, which was infamously less so elsewhere. In a 2004 report, Amnesty described the disparity at length, before stating, in its final recommendations:

The North Korean government should . . . [e]nsure that food shortages are not used as a tool to persecute perceived political opponents and that there is no discrimination in the distribution of food aid.

Medicins Sans Frontieres, which actually pulled out of North Korea over the latter’s lack of transparency in the distribution of food aid, had this to say:

Even population groups such as children, pregnant women, and the elderly, who are specifically targeted for assistance by the United Nations World Food Program, are being denied food aid.

MSF essentially accused the regime of discriminating against certain classes in its distribution of food:

North Korean refugees across the Chinese border spoke of widespread famine, and reported that the authorities had distributed international aid according to social position and party loyalty.

Most scathing of all, and the most recent to weigh in, was Refugees International (this file is a big, fat pdf):

In North Korea access to public goods–food, education, health care, shelter, employment–cannot be separated from the all-pervasive system of political persecution. Based on an original registration conducted in 1947, the North Korean population is divided into three categories: core, wavering, and hostile, with the latter constituting 27% of the total. There are more than 50 subcategories.

The class status of each family is for life and transfers from generation to generation. Members of the hostile class are the last to receive entitlements, which is disastrous when a comprehensive welfare regime such as that established in North Korea collapses, as it did from 1994 onwards. Thus, an entire class of individuals is persecuted through the functioning of North Korea’s political system. In this context, there is no meaningful way to separate economic deprivation from political persecution.
. . . .

Based on Refugees International’s interviews, and the testimony collected by other human rights organizations, most North Koreans crossing the border into China are fleeing state-sponsored denial of their human rights. Members of the “hostile class” and residents of areas deliberately cut off from international food assistance have an especially strong case to be considered refugees in the sense of fleeing targeted political persecution. . . . Not since Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge has a government succeeded in creating such an all-encompassing reality of oppression and restrictions on the basic rights of the majority of its citizens. (emphasis mine)

To Fiona Terry of Medicins San Frontieres, the North Korean government’s manipulation of international food aid was studied and intentional:

The teams realised that the government fabricated whatever they wanted aid workers to see: malnourished children in nurseries when more food aid was desired, and well-fed children when donors needed reassurance that food aid was doing good. Refugee testimonies corroborate this concern: some report having carried food from military storage facilities to nurseries before a UN visit, and others speak of being mobilised to dig up areas to exacerbate flood damage in preparation for a UN inspection.

When driving through some towns MSF personnel saw filthy, malnourished children dressed in rags, scavenging for grains along the railway track. But when asked about these children and the possibility of assisting them, the authorities denied that they even existed. MSF began to understand that the North Korean government categorises its population according to perceived loyalty and usefulness to the regime, and those deemed ‘hostile’ or useless were expendable. (emphasis mine)

How many of its people could North Korea consider expendable? Terry, writing in The Guardian, claimed that “in 1996, Kim Jong-il publicly declared that only 30% of the population needed to survive to reconstruct a victorious society.

Would a Court Convict Kim Jong Il?

Of the fine legal definition of genocide, we have spoken. But what of Kim Jong Il’s culpability for the famine as murder? Disparate impact can be circumstantial evidence for an intent to kill, but falls short of being conclusive proof. This is not to give life to the myth that circumstantial evidence alone cannot be the basis for a conviction; it assuredly can. But was this disparate impact the result of mere coincidence, official negligence, or malice aforethought? The answer to this question may have to await the trial of Kim Jong Il.

[Update: According to this must-read report, the answer is probably “yes.”]


  1. Defining Genocide Down

    […] The first of these is the simpler one to address: when the Korean Council of Churches (KCC) denounces North Korea for keeping 250,000 people in concentration camps and letting its two million most expendable people starve to death during Kim Jong Il’s nuke binge, the KCC’s stultified model of society, its crappy taste in movies, and its quixotic call to ban “The Da Vinci Code” aren’t really relevant, any more than the ACLU’s past associations with Stalinists were relevant to the righteousness of its opposition to lynchings. This logical fallacy is so well-worn that it even has its own name. […]

  2. Defining Genocide Down

    […] That was then. South Korea’s UniFiction Minister is now saying no more rice if the little man fires the big rocket. I strongly support feeding the people of North Korea — especially those to whom the government has denied food aid. They are also victims; they bear no responsibility for the actions of those who rule them. Because South Korea’s unilateral food aid program is almost entirely unmonitored, experts have suggested that it has exactly the opposite effect. […]

  3. Defining Genocide Down

    […] It’s true that there are many unknowables here. None of us can really say what’s inside the T-dong 2, other than the melted-down rice bowls of the two million people who were starved to death to fund its construction. Nor can we know where this thing will land. Our missile defense system is still very early in its development, and its success is far from certain. […]

  4. […] I’ve finally finished reading the DLA Piper report, which calls on the U.N. Security Council to invoke Chapter VI, and then Chapter VII, against North Korea for the crime of failing to protect its population.  As regular readers know, I’ve long placed the North Korean famine at the top of the list of its crimes against humanity, and now, for the first time, a published scholarly report is making that same accusation and tying it to specific provisions of international law.  Starting at Page 89 of the report: […]

  5. […] Granted, oversimplication is Cindy Sheehan’s stock in trade, but there is a point at which we all bear responsibility for the harm we cause through our stupidity.  Not content to make Iraq into the new Cambodia, she has allied herself with the agents of Kim Jong Il, a man who is probably responsible for more death and suffering than any other living person.  An exhaustive new report commissioned by Elie Wiesel and Vaclav Havel accuses Kim of “crimes against humanity” for allowing millions of his people to starve to death.  That report helped persuade even the U.N. General Assembly to condemn Kim Jong Il for his atrocious human rights record.  This, just a week before Ms. Sheehan joined up with a movement that now appears to have been directed in large part by North Korean intelligence. […]

  6. […] To a much greater extent, North Korea, which aspires to a higher degree of central economic planning than any other state, is answerable for its misspent national wealth when the great majority of its people enter winter on the brink famine.  In a planned economy, after all, one is not even permitted to accumulate independent wealth without fear of the violent intervention of the state.  The greater part of the problem of resource misallocation is the North’s stunning profligacy when it comes to arms spending.  Reader James Chen also points us to this Wall Street Journal piece (subscription required) on the promiscuous decadence of North Korea’s ruling class, the class whose war against the other classes has now killed millions. A North Korean businesswoman with heavy makeup and a bouffant hairdo studied herself in a mirror as she modeled fur-lined leather coats at a small store in this frigid northeast border city. […]

  7. […] I reckon that not a single reader believes that anyone in North Korea possesses that degree of extra-authoritarian sophistication (at least, that seems to be the general consensus here).  More, I suspect, will simply ask, “Why not permit us all to have our little fictions to remove a greater obstacle to peace?”  Leave aside the fact that this peace kills more people and causes more suffering than most wars.  If I believed that that entertaining such a fiction offered any more realistic prospect of bringing us to peace than, say, the pretense that North Korea isn’t in the uranium enrichment business, it might merit serious though.  But of course, it’s neither American instransigence nor even North Korean incorrigibility that bars us from the face-saving exit that our great South Korean blood allies have so persistently demanded.  They could have simply traded the North Koreans’ dollar plates for the necessary components to print a few tons of these: […]

  8. […] (China’s abuse and repatriation of these refugees is a flagrant violation of the 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees, which China signed, but of course, China really doesn’t care, and neither does the U.N., nor do the hypocrites who comprise the majority of the Human Rights Industry.  Ditto the “managed famine” that killed two million North Koreans during its largest-ever arms binge.) […]

  9. […] What I hope Fred and his readers will consider is that the North Korean people are not Kim Jong Il’s wasting assets.  They are the victims of his greatest crime against humanity. […]

  10. […] Some have suggested that this famine will be less severe because only the most hardened ”survivors” still remain alive, but a severe humanitarian tragedy seems to be unfolding.  As with the Great Famine of the 1990’s, scholars may debate whether to attribute deaths from cold and disease to famine, but what is clear is that all of them are preventable, and that the failure to prevent them is a crime against humanity. […]

  11. […] On the other hand, the suggestion that this is a burial site doesn’t seem implausible on its face.  We do know that the North Korean famine killed between 600,000 and 3.5 million people.  We know that many of the dead were buried in mass graves (keep reading for an eyewitness account).  In Korean tradition, white is the color of mourning.  Note also that Andrew Natsios, for Administrator of USAID, now Special Envoy on Darfur, and previously World Vision’s North Korea Director, has previously described witnessing a mass burial of famine victims from across the Chinese border.  His description is chillingly consistent with this image. I’ve been to famines before. I’ve watched mass burial in North Korea on Tumen River… went up undercover in October, November of 1998″ when he was across the river with his South Korean friend, Ven. Beopryun, he said. […]

  12. […] I served in South Korea with the Army for four years, from 1998 to 2002. As I was serving in Korea, more survivors of the camps began to describe the conditions there.  We already heard about the completely preventable famine that killed about 2 million North Koreans while Kim Jong Il built a nuclear arsenal and bought artillery, submarines, missiles, and MiG’s. For the soldiers, in a way, none of this really mattered much. Most soldiers tend to be fairly apolitical. For those who kept up with the reports, it only reinforced what we knew, but could not really change, about the brutality of life inside North Korea. What struck me more was why South Koreans didn’t care. This comment on my blog typifies the mixture of denial and justification so many South Koreans, especially the young, applied to the horrors in the North. It’s a wierd witch’s brew of nationalism and socialism that, in its various forms, periodically incinerates lives by the millions, like a fire burns away the August grain. […]

  13. […] I served in South Korea with the Army for four years, from 1998 to 2002. As I was serving in Korea, more survivors of the camps began to describe the conditions there. We already heard about the completely preventable famine that killed about 2 million North Koreans while Kim Jong Il built a nuclear arsenal and bought artillery, submarines, missiles, and MiG’s. For the soldiers, in a way, none of this really mattered much. Most soldiers tend to be fairly apolitical. For those who kept up with the reports, it only reinforced what we knew, but could not really change, about the brutality of life inside North Korea. What struck me more was why South Koreans didn’t care. This comment on my blog typifies the mixture of denial and justification so many South Koreans, especially the young, applied to the horrors in the North. It’s a wierd witch’s brew of nationalism and socialism that, in its various forms, periodically incinerates lives by the millions, like a fire burns away the August grain. […]

  14. […] Some policies, of course, are easier to understand than others, and mostly absent from Linton’s “explanations” are North Korea’s suffocating repression, its hellish concentration camps, and of greatest relevance for Linton’s work, its culpable misallocation of food which, according to various estimates, killed between half a million and three and a half million people.  Like other defenders of the regime, Linton views sanctions in a vacuum, without mentioning the acts of terrorism and proliferation that led to them, its stubborn refusal to convincingly renounce those methods, or its compulsion for turning plowshares into thrust-vector nozzles.  Is nothing Kim Jong Il’s fault?  If so, Linton isn’t saying. […]

  15. […] Only two things have been missing from the Korean conservatives’ campaigns for the last two years:  an agenda and decent candidates.  And yet they still win.  Perhaps realizing that they could win elections on negative turnout alone, they’ve mostly run against the excesses of their opponents while articulating few principles to really challenge the left, especially where it went horriby wrong.  Just next door to the greatest act of national self-immolation since the Khmer Rouge fled Phnom Penh, Park Geun-Hye’s North Korea policy has been inert, triangulated, and Clintonian: ”flexible and future-oriented“ on abetting more years of famine, terror, and atrocities comparable in scale and depravity to Mauthausen and Tuol Sleng.  History is unforgiving of such things.  And rather than repudiating her father’s (mostly benevolent but) dictatorial legacy, she has basked in the desires of some to see the return of more “decisive” leadership.  Her occasional support for censoring opposing views reinforces our worst fears, though Roh Moo-Hyun’s rule was hardly a paragon of free speech, either.  Park was bested by Lee Myung-Bak for the GNP nomination, but she emerged from the race with a reputation for personal gravitas, maturity, integrity, and cool under fire.  She may now be the race’s new king-maker.  As of this morning, she’s backing Lee Myung-Bak.  In a move that’s classic Park, she backed the safe, consensus candidate, but left herself room to wriggle away from Lee if his troubles deepen. […]

  16. […] . . . in a U.N. vote to condemn North Korea’s human rights atrocities (via Korea Unification Studies).  They abstain, for the record, from condemning this, or this, or this.  Or this. […]

  17. […] The Beginning of the End: Food Shortages Reach Pyongyang The regime has contained and survived mass-casualty famine and dissent in the countryside before.  A severe downturn in Pyongyang, however, is a game-changer.  If the regime can’t even feed its elite, it’s going to have to take some chairs away from the banquet table.  That means commissars and apparatchiks will shiv each other for the remaining chairs as though their lives depend on it.  A rumored phase-out of the “military first” policy introduces a whole new pool of potential coup plotters. This could be the beginning of the end.  If the report is true – and if China doesn’t execute an Olympic-sized airlift to reverse those conditions fast – there’s a 70% chance of regime collapse within the next year. […]

  18. […] That last point merits reconsideration, and it deserves a prominent place in Kim Jong Il’s indictment. North Korea’s systematic discrimination against hereditary social groups extended to depriving them of food. Were it not for Stalin’s self-serving intervention when the U.N. was writing its definition of genocide, Kim Jong Il’s starvation of the “hostile” classes, like Stalin’s starvation of the Ukrainian kulaks, would have been classifiable as such. […]

  19. […] aren’t in prison. These reports, in the context of estimates that North Korea has allowed between 600,000 and 2,500,000 of its people to starve to death while its government squandered the nation’s resources on […]

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