The Next Food Crisis, Part 1: DLA Piper Report: N. Korean Famine A ‘Crime Against Humanity’

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:

  • Further compounding this problem, the government strictly controlled food distribution and banned private markets.734 The North Korean government further used its control over food distribution to reward those persons deemed favored by the regime and to deny food to the less privileged.735

Conclusion of Sub-Section on Food Policy and Famine

There can be no more fundamental responsibility of a sovereign than to ensure its citizens are adequately nourished. For over 50 years the North Korean government has failed to meet this universal humanitarian imperative. The circumstances that created the famine continue to exist; they are the same problems that have existed for decades. North Korea cannot biologically andecologically produce food in amounts sufficient to provide nutritious meals toits people and do so reliably every year, including having a reserve to weather natural disasters.

In starving and malnourishing large portions of its population ““ let alonehaving been complicit in the deaths of as many as one million, and possibly more, of its own citizens ““ the North Korean government is committing the following actions: (1) extermination; and (2) other inhumane acts.

It is important to recall that the definition of “extermination” under the Rome Statute includes inflicting life conditions, such as depriving access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population.736 “Other inhumane acts” includes the “causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.737

The main question that remained open in my mind was whether the deaths of all those people were the result of deliberate political cleansing,  a criminally reckless misallocation of resources, or at the very best, criminal negligence.  As it turns out, the actor’s state of mind is not a required element to prove the charge:

The acts described in this report committed by the North Korean government ““ such as preventing access to 42 counties for food aid monitoring, limiting and often banning private markets, controlling food distribution, inhibiting the transparent free distribution of aid, and limiting the number of aid workers allowed in the country ““ are widespread and systematic actions that result in starving substantial segments of the population. Under customary international law relating to crimes against humanity “there is an evidentiary presumption that persons who commit acts or omissions do so intentionally, absent indications to the contrary.738

As a result, there is no requirement to “prove” that North Korea intends its people to starve; rather it is sufficient to prove that the government has taken widespread and systematic actions that lead to that outcome.

Not only do these acts clearly violate North Korea’s obligations under the ICESCR and CRC739, but its refusal to feed substantial segments of its own population constitutes crimes against humanity. 


  1. Pretty good summary of why Kim Jong Il should be flayed. I must admit two peeves. 1: It does a good job fisking ROK, but at the same time doesn’t admit that ROK provides pretty generous resettlement resources–and in addition, that despite this, refugee integration into ROK society is grim at best. 2: It’s pretty good with facts and figures, but fail to cite the number of North Korean refugees residing in the US as a result of the NKHRA. I assume the moment of truth for the NKHRA will be this spring or maybe even next spring when starvation becomes an issue. I assume they didn’t mention my point numero uno, because they probably felt it was not within the scope of their report. Although, that’s kind of hard to believe. As for my numero dos, I assume they didn’t want to piss off anyone important. Adding three or four mere sentences wouldn’t really take away anything, but wouldn’t appear politically biased.


  2. I recall them mentioning that the USG had only admitted a handful of refugees. I think we’re up to nine now. It’s also possible that I’m confusing that with the Crisis Group report … so much good scholarship coming out lately.