More than a decade after North Korea was struck by a famine that killed up to a million people, the country’s poorest are once again facing starvation, reports Peter Foster in Yanji
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North Koreans sell small food items from a roadside stall on the outskirts of Pyongyang, North Korea
7:00PM BST 16 Jul 2011
It was an ice-cold day in the North Korean border town of Musan when a small crowd gathered round what looked like a bundle of rags on the platform of the railway station.
“I went up to see what they were looking at,” recalled 63-year-old Lee Sun Ok, a North Korean farmer who had come to the city to sell some small rice-cakes she had made to earn money. “And then I saw it was the body of an old man with a piece of cloth placed over his face.
“I asked if he had fallen down because he was sick, but the people shook their heads and said, ‘No, he was just too hungry and died for lack of something to eat.’”
Mrs Lee’s account is among shocking first hand testimony about the dramatically worsening living conditions in the secretive Stalinist state obtained by The Sunday Telegraph last week.
In almost 10 hours of interviews during clandestine meetings with The Sunday Telegraph just inside China, four North Koreans who recently risked their lives to flee across the tightly-guarded border from their homeland described the desperate plight of those left behind.
Kim Yeong, 68, told how families were being forced to scour the countryside for wild plants to boil up for food in a desperate attempt to stave off starvation.
“People are very poor again, they are going to the mountains to get grasses and weeds to make into soup,” he said. “Some people are having to eat manure when they cannot get any rice or corn.”
The UN’s World Food Programme says North Korea faces its worst food shortage in a decade, with six million people at risk – a consequence of poor economic management of its centrally planned system, a series of bad harvests caused by harsh winters, flooding and exhausted agricultural land, and the regime’s unwillingness to spend its dwindling hard currency reserves on buying food for its 24 million people.
But the world has been slow to react for fear of propping up the increasingly belligerent government of Kim Jong-il, which is vigorously pursuing a nuclear weapons programme and threatening its South Korean neighbour – leading the US to suspend food aid in 2008.
Aid agencies report that government food rations for some have been cut to just 200g a day – barely one tenth of what is needed.
Last week, after making its own assessment, the European Commission offered €10m in emergency food aid to Pyongyang, warning that 500,000 people faced possible starvation, with children already suffering acute malnutrition.
Ordinary North Koreans are denied the chance to speak openly by the all-controlling regime of Kim Jong-il and are almost never heard by the outside world. The four who spoke to The Sunday Telegraph – a businessman, a farmer, a factory worker and a housewife – did so in the Chinese town of Yanji, where they are living and working in secret to support their families back home.
Many Chinese citizens in this border region are Korean by ethnic origin and maintain their language and customs, making it possible for illegal migrants to blend in.
When we met in an empty apartment in a nondescript suburb of Yanji, Mrs Lee was visibly nervous, fretful for her security in a city where the police pay rewards to anyone who denounces a North Korean migrant. The interviews, arranged through intermediaries, were conducted sitting on the floor of the sparsely furnished apartment, below the line of sight of anyone outside.
Mrs Lee was carefully made up and nervously fingered her cheap, plastic jewellery as she spoke – knowing that if caught she would be sent back to North Korea to spend months in the gulags on starvation rations.
But, she said, the situation at home was so desperate she had no option but to risk all and leave, and now she wanted the world to know what was happening in her country.
In January, a month after seeing the dead man in the station, Mrs Lee stood in the doorway of her farmhouse, surveyed the barren hillsides around, and decided it was time to go. Everything that could be used for firewood had been stripped from the land over previous decades as families battled for warmth winter; now all was bare and infertile.
“When I was young, the woods outside my house were so thick you could get lost coming home,” she recalled. “But now there is only bare land – even the roots of the trees are gone. I couldn’t see how I could continue to live in North Korea.”
So in a leave of absence from her agricultural work unit, timed to coincide with a moonless night, she put on her warmest clothes and walked eight miles to the frozen Tumen river, the dividing line between destitute North Korea and economically booming China.
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TWO YEARS LATER…….
North Korean parents ‘eating their own children’ after being driven mad by hunger in famine-hit pariah state
- Undercover reporters found a ‘shocking’ number of cannibalism incidents
- Up to 10,000 people feared dead after ‘hidden famine’ in farming provinces
- Drought and confiscated food contribute to desperate shortage, reports say
- Reports of men digging up corpses for food and murdering children
By Becky Evans
PUBLISHED: 11:11 EST, 27 January 2013 | UPDATED: 03:10 EST, 28 January 2013
A starving man in North Korea has been executed after murdering his two children for food, reports from inside the secretive state claim.
A ‘hidden famine’ in the farming provinces of North and South Hwanghae is believed to have killed up to 10,000 people and there are fears that incidents of cannibalism have risen.
The grim story is just one to emerge as residents battle starvation after a drought hit farms and shortages were compounded by party officials confiscating food.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has spent vast sums of money on two rocket launches despite reports of desperate food shortages in the country and concerns that 10,000 people have died in a famine
Undercover reporters from Asia Press told the Sunday Times that one man dug up his grandchild’s corpse and ate it. Another, boiled his own child for food.
Despite reports of the widespread famine, Kim Jong Un, 30, has spent vast sums of money on two rocket launches in recent months.
There are fears he is planning a nuclear test in protest at a UN Security Council punishment for the recent rocket launches and to counter what it sees as US hostility.
One informant was quoted as saying: ‘In my village in May a man who killed his own two children and tried to eat them was executed by a firing squad.’
Farming communities, such as these pictured outside the capital Pyongyang last year, have been desperately hit by drought which has led to reports of people turning to cannibalism in a bid to ward off starvation