The human rights situation could not be adequately monitored by the international community because of government restrictions on access to the country, giving rise to concern that serious human rights violations remained hidden. Conditions for prisoners were likely to have deteriorated.

The country continued to suffer the effects of acute food shortages caused by a series of natural disasters and poor economic policies. Thousands of people were believed to have died of hunger and related illnesses, but aid agencies, which were denied access to large areas of the country, said they could not assess the real effects of the food shortages. Several independent aid agencies and non-governmental organizations reported that food was being distributed according to loyalty to the state and economic productivity, and that food aid was not reaching the most vulnerable groups within the population.

In September the aid agency Médecins sans Frontières announced its withdrawal from the country. The agency said it had been denied access to substantial parts of the population for monitoring purposes, including needy children. It criticized the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) for its lack of transparency and accountability with regard to the delivery of humanitarian aid.

In July the government announced that elections had taken place for representatives to the 10th Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), which had not met since the death of former President Kim Il Sung in 1994. The new SPA convened in September and adopted constitutional amendments which resulted in the abolition of the posts of President and Vice-President. The amended Constitution proclaimed the deceased Kim Il Sung to be the "eternal President". The SPA confirmed the leadership of his son, Kim Jong Il, by re-electing him as Chairman of the National Defence Commission, which became the highest post of state. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Yong Nam was appointed to a new position as President of the Presidium of the SPA. He was expected to assume many of the external functions of a head of state.

Government restrictions on access and information hampered the collection of independent and impartial information about the human rights situation. There was continued concern that human rights violations could not be adequately monitored by the international community and that the North Korea population therefore remained vulnerable to hidden human rights violations.

In August the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities adopted a resolution calling on North Korea to cooperate fully with the procedures and services of the UN and urging the government to "facilitate inquiries by independent national and international human rights monitoring organizations concerning the current human rights situation within the country and to allow the publication and distribution of all findings inside the Democratic People's Republic of Korea".

The North Korean government again failed to submit its overdue report to the UN Human Rights Committee, in accordance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and repeated its 1997 statement that it had "withdrawn" from the ICCPR (see Amnesty International Report 1998). In October government representatives told Amnesty International that North Korea had prepared its overdue report to the UN Human Rights Committee but would not submit it unless members of the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities changed their "attitude" towards North Korea.

The government submitted its initial report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and attended the examination of this report in May, reversing its 1997 decision to suspend reporting on its implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (see Amnesty International Report 1998).

Some sources reported the continued detention of thousands of political prisoners, but these reports could not be confirmed. There was concern that economic hardship was likely to have led to a marked deterioration in conditions of detention and to have resulted in acute food shortages for prisoners. Several executions were reported to have been carried out, but independent confirmation was unavailable.

Hundreds of people are reported to have travelled to neighbouring countries in search of food, mostly to the People's Republic of China. Once there they risked being apprehended by the Chinese and North Korean public security authorities and sent back to North Korea where some were reportedly detained.

In September Amnesty International wrote to Kim Jong Il urging him to reaffirm North Korea's commitment to international human rights standards, in view of previous statements that the country had "withdrawn" from the ICCPR; to comply with its treaty obligations, including its reporting obligations under the ICCPR; to develop dialogue with UN human rights mechanisms; and to allow access to independent human rights monitors.

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