Starving North Koreans have been publicly executed for stealing food and have died of malnutrition in labor camps, Amnesty International said in a report released yesterday.
The human rights group urged the North Korean government to "ensure that food shortages are not used as a tool to persecute perceived political opponents."
The report — released in Bombay at the World Social Forum, an international gathering of antiglobalization activists — records the chilling testimony of North Korean refugees interviewed in South Korea and Japan, and interviews with international aid groups during 2002 and 2003.
The report accuses the North Korean government of distributing food unfairly, favoring those who are economically active and politically loyal.
"Some North Koreans, who were motivated by hunger to steal food grains or livestock, have been publicly executed," Amnesty International researcher Rajiv Narayan said.
"Public notices advertised the executions, and schoolchildren were forced to watch the shootings or hangings," he said.
Public executions were at their highest from 1996 to 1998, when famine gripped North Korea, the report said.
Refugees told Amnesty International that food usually consisted of potato skins and beans.
North Korea's isolated Stalinist regime has relied on foreign aid to feed its people since revealing in the mid-1990s that its state-run farming industry had collapsed.
The report appears to confirm fears of the United States and others that food supplies are being diverted to the military or given as rewards to supporters of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
"We were always so hungry and resorted to eating grass in spring," said one person, identified only as Kim, who served four years in a labor camp on treason charges. Kim spoke of meals being taken away as punishment if detainees were caught speaking to each other.
"When someone died, fellow prisoners delayed reporting his death to the authorities so that they could eat his allocated breakfast," Kim said.
Human rights activists have criticized North Korea for its harsh labor camps, where people are detained after fleeing to China to escape famine and political repression.
China has a treaty with Pyongyang that obliges it to return fleeing North Koreans, but allows them to leave for the South if their cases become publicly known.
On Monday, the United Nations' World Food Program said it had been forced to cut off food aid to 2.7 million North Korean women and children during the country's harsh winter because of a lack of foreign donations.
A key issue for the North's biggest food donors — the United States and South Korea — has been Pyongyang's restrictions on allowing foreign agencies to monitor who receives food aid.
The Amnesty International report called for "free and unimpeded access" for humanitarian groups to all parts of North Korea.