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(Photo: Gerald Bourke/WFP via Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

North Korean famine

Julian Ryall, Tokyo
February 8, 2013

Dissident North Korean reporters claim that more than 10,000 people have died of starvation in the Hwanghae provinces while the government pays little attention to the misery of the people.


Ten North Korean nationals are secretly providing information from within the borders of the world's most secretive and repressive nation on political issues, economic conditions, human rights abuses and the food security situation for ordinary people in North Korea.

The reporters - also known as Citizen Reporters - cannot use their real names for fear of discovery and live in daily fear of execution if they are caught.

The Citizen Reporters say that North Korea currently faces the worst famine in its history since the four-year "Arduous March" period starting from 1994, during which natural disasters and economic mismanagement caused the deaths of as many as 3.5 million people.

Even more worryingly, the North Korean dissident reporters have documented several cases of cannibalism among the starving rural communities.

Traditionally, the area directly south of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang has served as the bread-basket of the nation. Last year, however, an estimated 10,000 residents of the neighboring provinces of North and South Hwanghae died in a famine that the regime has refused to admit took place.

'An indifferent regime'

Experts say that the leaders of the regime are quite indifferent to the suffering of the people.

"Ever since Kim Jong Un assumed the position of supreme leader, the North Korean media and visiting foreigners are only talking about 'the beautifully developing Pyongyang,'" Jiro Ishimaru, who heads the Osaka office of the journalistic organization Asiapress, told DW. "But in the shadows of the 'gorgeous' capital, a 'hidden famine' has broken out."

Dissident reporters have learnt that the deaths caused by starvation peaked between April and June of last year.

Crowds of people visiting the Mansu Hill in Pyongyang before statues of late President Kim Il-Sung and leader Kim Jong-Il on the first anniversary of leader Kim Jong-Il's death (Photo: KNS/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korea's rich elite seems unperturbed by the disaster, say international rights groupsImage: Getty Images

"In my village people were dying left and right every day. There would be deaths at six families one day, then at five families the following day," a survivor told the reporters. "One family was completely wiped out - everyone died of starvation - while at another family, they gave up hope of living, and they all killed themselves."

Elsewhere, villagers hoped that the central government would provide assistance to them during the celebrations marking the 100th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung - the founder of the nation.

"It's true it should have been a national day of celebration, but seeing so many people die right in front of my eyes made me feel a profound sense of sadness welling up," a village official said. "We were all quite excited that there would be lots of special rations handed out as part of the celebrations, but it turned out all we got was 500 grams of sugar, a plate of sweet potatoes, a bar of soap and a toothbrush."

"It was so disappointing, we were in no mood to celebrate the holiday," he added.

In Pyongyang, meanwhile, residents received generous extra rations. A number of high-rise buildings and entertainment facilities were constructed and fireworks displays lit up the night skies.

Other witnesses tell of the bodies of homeless people being taken to hospitals. But without firewood to cremate the bodies or coffins, they were simply wrapped in straw mats and buried in communal graves.

Cannibalism claims

North Korean dissident reporters also narrate stories of families abandoning elderly relatives and children on the streets as they were unable to feed them. Others resorted to cannibalism, Asiapress reporters claim.

"In my village in May, a man who killed his two children and tried to eat them was executed by a firing squad," a man, who identified himself as Lim, said. "While his wife was away on business he killed his eldest daughter, and because his son saw what he had done, he killed his son as well."

"When his wife came home, he offered her food saying 'we have meat,'" he added. "But the wife, suspicious that her children were missing, notified the Ministry of Public Security, which led to the discovery of part of their children's bodies from under the eaves."

North Korean women queue to receive corn at a public distribution centre on October 17, 2005 in Sohung County, north Hwanghae province, North Korea (Photo: Gerald Bourke/WFP via Getty Images)
The UN has warned of a huge human crisis in North KoreaImage: Getty Images

Other accounts tell of a man arrested for digging up the grave of his grandchild and eating the remains, while in the city of Haejyu, a criminal who killed 11 people and sold the meat as pork was reportedly executed by a firing squad in May.

Asiapress admits though that it has "no accurate statistics" on the number of deaths due to starvation, but that interviews with local people reveal consistent reports of the scale of the disaster.

Causes of the crisis

Asiapress, however, were able to identify some of the key causes of the crisis.

They say that North Korean farmers told them of government officials and the army forcibly taking away their harvests under the "Food for the Capital" and "Food for the Army" programs, leaving rural villages with insufficient stocks to feed the people.

The situation worsened during the winter season, when farmers would traditionally collect shellfish, seaweed and clams from the coast to supplement their diets. In the two-month mourning period after the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011, however, they were banned from going to the coast.

There are reports that conditions have improved since last year, although there are renewed concerns for future crops due to economic mismanagement and poor weather conditions.

Asiapress is calling on the international community to force North Korea to permit fact-finding teams to enter the affected areas and for Pyongyang to admit that it requires emergency food assistance and fertilizers to prevent further famines.

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