Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Cannibalism in North Korea

Cannibalism in North Korea
There’s a group of very brave people in North Korea working clandestinely as journalists. They were trained and are sponsored by AsiaPress, based in Japan, and if they are caught they face imprisonment, starvation, and worse in North Korea’s system of punitive prison camps. The people they interview are also very brave (for information on the prison camps, contact me at for a copy of my unpublished article “State Enslavement in North Korea”.)
Based on these journalists’ work, AsiaPress issued a report in January 2013 “Report on the Famine in the Hwanghae Provinces and the Food Situation 2012”. You can find the report here: . The North and South Hwanghae provinces are very close to the capital, Pyongyang, and that appears to be their misfortune. Since he succeeded his deceased father as North Korea’s leader in late 2011, Kim Jong-un has decided to spruce up Pyongyang with massive building projects, including enormous high rise towers, an aquarium for dolphins, and a huge amusement park. These projects require thousands and thousands of construction workers, who must be fed. Kim Jong-un also has to make sure two key constituencies who support his rule are well fed; the people of Pyongyang, and the military. (Though he isn’t doing too well with the military: the AsiaPress report includes a photo of tiny—probably previously malnourished--starving soldiers.)
Starving North Korean soldiers, Asia Press
Lately the food for these three groups of people comes from Hwangwe provinces, known as the breadbasket of  North Korea, where despite horrendously inefficient agricultural policies the people are usually not likely to starve. AsiaPress’ reporters have talked to people from the two provinces and done statistical calculations, and come to the conclusion that last year between January and May, at least 10,000 people died there. There was no grass on the ground in the spring because people were picking every shoot and eating it. Entire families were dying, and people were abandoning their elderly parents and young children.
The witnesses also reported hearing rumors of cannibalism. One frequently reported story was of a man who was executed after his wife came home to discover he had killed their children and was cooking their flesh, telling her proudly that he had procured some meat. Another story was of a grandfather who dug up his deceased grandchild and ate the remains. Another man killed eleven people and then sold their flesh as pork in the marketplace: he was also executed
These may sound as if they are just rumors, but cannibalism was verified in North Korea during the famine of the 1990s (there were verified reports of  “special meat” being sold in the markets during the 1990s famine). People do eat each other when they are starving: at a certain point your  morality gives way and all you can think of is food.  There are verified stories of cannibalism from other famines, for example the Ukrainian famine in the Soviet Union in 1932-33, in which about 3 million people starved to death in Ukraine alone, and perhaps another million in Kazakhstan. Cannibalism is something people don’t want to think about, but it happens. In North Korea, the cause is not individual criminals (though the government executes them as such) but deliberate state policy that undermines agricultural production and steals food from farmers.
The system in North Korea is that farmers have to give a fixed amount of harvest to the state, regardless of how big or small the harvest is and how much is left over for farmers to feed themselves and their families. Last year, there just wasn’t enough food left over in these two provinces once the state had collected its share. Soldiers guarded the fields and threshing floors to make sure the farmers did not take any food during the harvest. And they went into people’s dwellings to remove any food they had in their larders or even hidden in toilets. Apparently when Kim Jong-un was told people were starving in Hwangwe provinces, he ordered a little food to be sent to them, but then forgot about them.
In passing: Recently Dennis Rodman, one of the stars of the Chicago Bulls basketball team in the 1990s, visited North Korea to hang out with Kim Jong-un. I’m not exactly a huge basketball fan, but I used to enjoy watching Rodman and his cross-dressing antics. No longer. Now Rodman is  defending Kim, saying he’s just a kid, a regular guy, while Kim steals food from peasants. Rodman ought to be ashamed of himself. Or he could redeem himself by using his popularity and visits to TV shows to tell the truth about the “regular guy” he visited. The proper place for Kim Jong-un to be is in a jail cell at The Hague awaiting trial in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity; it’s not hanging out with American basketball stars in Pyongyang.
For more information on North Korea’s famines, see my article “State-Induced Famine and Penal Starvation in North Korea,” Genocide Studies and Prevention, vol.7, nos. 2/3, August/December 2012), pp. 147-75.

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