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.
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.
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.”]