Last year I published a review here of Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea (Better off as a Dog, 1 September). In part this touched on the disastrous famine that hit the hermit state in the 1990s, forcing desperate people into desperate exile. I made the following observation;
No, it wasn’t politics that forced them into exile: it was hunger, the famine which gripped this ideological museum in the 1990s and is thought to have been responsible for the deaths of as many as two million people, reduced in their final extremity to eating bark and weeds.
Now I know that the picture was even worse; now I know that in their final extremity some people were reduced to eating not bark and weeds but human flesh.
It’s not all in the past. It would seem that occasional cannibalism has become part of life in this worker’s paradise. For some time now defectors have reported witnessing executions for cannibalism, the most recent in the town of Mushan only last year. Given the paucity of news intelligence coming from the North corroboration has all but been impossible. But now a study is to be published next week in Seoul, in which the allegations are supported by police documents smuggled out of the country.
Instances of cannibalism during famine are not new. During Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward in China in the late 1950s and early 1960s things got so bad that people took to digging up the bodies of recently deceased relatives for want of anything else to eat.
In North Korea some of the starving chose not to wait on death. Rather, in their impatience, they have taken to hurrying the process on a little. In 2009 a man was executed in Hyesan for killing a girl and eating her, after government incompetence led to dwindling local food supplies. In another case a man was killed by a co-worker with an axe. Some of his flesh was consumed; the remainder was sold in a local market as ‘mutton.’
There are other dimensions here to the use and misuse of human flesh. The Chinese authorities are now investigating reports that capsules of drugs now being smuggled into South Korea contain the powdered remains of dead babies.
Given the parlous state of the subjects of the Fat Leader the international community has responded on several occasions with food aid. According to the refugees, many people did not receive this emergency assistance. Others report that they were made to hand over such manna as they did receive to government officials as soon as the aid workers had departed.
Looking a Kim Jong-un, the aforementioned Fat Leader, it’s reasonable to assume that much of the surplus makes its way to his various palaces. “Let them eat cake”, he may respond in the princely style of Marie Antoinette when told that the people have no bread. The trouble is that in North Korea there is no cake either. The only thing in abundance, it would seem, is the flesh of others.