Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: The miner is a pleasant man with a broad, welcoming smile, handsome despite a missing bottom tooth. He seems cheerful by disposition, but when he talks about the famine, a scowl spreads across his face. "They don't worry so much about ideology now," he said. "All anybody cares about is finding enough food to get through the day." The miner estimated that four or five of his housing block's 30 residents, and half of his 3,500 co-workers at the Poam coal mine, had died of starvation and related illnesses since the mid-1990s. For years, one of the hallmarks of North Korea's government was its public distribution system, which doled out food and other goods to citizens nearly for free. The regime considered coal mining a strategic occupation, and miners were given extra rations. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2005]

“But in the early 1990s, the lights in the mines went out, as did the pumps that kept the shafts dry. Beams rotted and equipment corroded. As the mines ceased production, the rations stopped. The children were the first to start dying, then the elderly. Next to perish were men, who seemed to need more calories to survive than women. Chongjin residents learned to recognize the stages of starvation. First, the victims become listless and too weak to work. Their vision grows blurry. They become bone-thin, then startlingly, their torsos bloat. Toward the end, they just lie still, sometimes hallucinating about food.

“While some people seem to fade away, others die in agony, their intestines blocked when they can't digest substitute foods, such as corn powder and oak leaves. Particularly lethal to children's digestive systems are ersatz rice cakes — molded out of a paste made from the inner bark of pine trees. Among the victims was the miner's 60-year-old father, an otherwise strong and robust man who had never been ill as long as he could remember. The miner's best friend, a co-worker and childhood buddy, dragged himself out to the mountains to look for food and never returned.

“The miner also vividly recalled his daughter running home screaming because her best friend, the 5-year-old boy next door, had died of a blockage. "He died on his father's back while he was carrying him home from the hospital. My daughter saw his body and came home crying. She said Myong Chol was lying still and not moving," the miner said. "Five or six of her friends died after that. We just had to tell her they moved away to another neighborhood."

What People Were Eating in the Famine

Most people ate two meals a day, the main one consisting of watery vegetable soup, a bowl of steamed corn, corn starch mixed with cabbage stocks, and sub-standard versions of kimchi.

One aid worker told the New York Times in June 1997, "We stopped and asked to see the head of the household and I said to him, 'What are you eating?' He showed us a bowl that looked like a small cereal bowl, maybe twice the size of a teacup. It was full of cornmeal gruel, white cornmeal with a lot of water in it, kind of the consistency if watered-down Cream of Wheat. He said he got three of those a day."

In the winter of 1996-97 people ate half of the corn crop as premature green kernels. The nationwide food ration had a fallen to 100 grams (3.5 ounces a day), the equivalent of half a bowl of rice or about 350 calories. The U.N. minimum daily level of food for refugees is 500 grams or 1,750 calories.

At that time people were observed picking up individual grains of rice in fields for food. One Korean Chinese who visited North Korea told the Korea Times, "I saw a hungry boy virtually steal a pieced of brownish cake from a person's mouth and gulp it down without chewing it. The person who lost his cake beat the young boy their until he threw it up and put it into his mouth."

Joshua Kurlantzick wrote in the New York Times, “To survive has required tenacity. Koreans are reported even to have murdered children and mixed their flesh with pork to eat. When I have encountered North Korean refugees in Asia, they look barely human — stunted figures with sallow, terrified faces. Some North Koreans have tried to grow their own food, potentially a sign of independent thinking. But for years Kim had them stopped.” [Source: Joshua Kurlantzick, New York Times, August 7, 2005]

Bark, Worms and Grass for Food During the North Korean Famine

To survive people with inadequate food rations ate excavated roots, the inner lining of tree bark, leaves, rice mixed with wood chips, ground corn cobs, cakes made from wild grass, noodles made from seaweed, “namul” (edible wild plants and herbs), mountain herbs such as arrowroot. and grass soup to survive. The consumption of tree bark reportedly caused intestinal problems and bleeding.

North Korean television ran programs telling people how to prepare grass and roots. "Today, I will introduce you to tasty and healthy ways to eat wild grass," the announcer said. "Parsley will be good after being briefly cooked in boiling water or fried. Making kimchi out of parsley will also be good." One North Korean man told the Los Angeles Times, "Eating wild plants is nothing — it's just that we're eating more of it these days. It's not easy. But our people are firmly united to overcome this national difficulty.:

An aid worker told Newsweek he saw "old wizened elderly women on their hands and knees in newly plowed fields, trying to find roots for the family soup pot." Journalist Orville Schell said he went to a golf driving range where peasants dodged golf balls, looking for edible plants in the fairway.

There were stories of children eating frogs and rats to survive. Children ate worms picked from the ground outside Pyongyang. In rural areas they picked up dirt and tried to eat it. Some people got very sick from eating cattle feed.The government urged North Koreans to raise rabbits and ostriches.

Finding Food During the 1990s North Korean Famine

Mina Yoon escaped North Korea in 2010. During the 1990s, when around one million people died from starvation, she recalls how her family ate tree bark and rice roots to survive. She wrote in NK News, “Because of the long-lasting famine, it was very competitive to find anything edible. When you went out to the mountains, plenty of people were already competing to dig out some edible herbs. Farmland was another battlefield to dig out the rice roots remaining in the soil. You might wonder what they would want rice roots for. People dug out the rice roots that remained after reaping, and they ground them into powder and made porridge or maybe some noodles. Though not as good as the fruits, the roots still have some useful nutrients inside. Food made from rice root tasted so awful, though, that for the first time in my life, I realised that some food is tasteless even for starving people. [Source: Mina Yoon for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, June 13, 2014]

“The most popular substitute food in those days was rice bran cake, pine bark cake, wormwood cake and cake made with wine lees. Rice bran, which is called mi-gang in North Korea, is the powder produced in the process of polishing brown rice. My grandmother kneaded the powder and made us rice cake in a cauldron. We waited for the rice cake to be cooked, and because there was not enough firewood, the flame was not strong enough the wait felt like a couple of decades. My little brother, who could not wait for the cauldron to finally boil, eventually he fell asleep before the cake was done.

Even in those hungry, painful days, there were some happy events we waited for. The days we ate pine bark cake were like Christmas to us. If you remove the thick, tough outer layer of pine trees, there’s another layer before you get to the white flesh of the tree. There’s a thin brown film between the outer skin and the white core. People peel off that thin film and pound it into fine powder. Then they add a couple tablespoons of flour to make a cake. So, basically, it is a cake made with tree bark and it actually tasted quite decent.

“However, it had one severe side effect: my little brother, the youngest, ate the cake and got constipation that was so bad that it caused him to burst into tears. Remembering my little brother sobbing loudly, now my heart aches again because he is still in North Korea. He was only four-years-old then, way too young to understand the hardships of life. Even at such a young age, he always thought of his family.

Cannibalism in Famine-Hit North Korea

There were reports of cannibalism. One North Korean defector told the Los Angeles Times, “When one is very hungry, one can go crazy. One woman in my town killed her 7-month-old baby and ate the baby with another woman. That woman’s son reported them to authorities...I can’t condemn cannibalism. Not that I wanted to eat human meat, but we were so hungry. It was common that people went to a fresh grave and dug up the body to eat meat. I witnessed a woman being questioned for cannibalism. She said it tasted good.”

Some women saved their placentas after giving birth to make into high protein soups. These women preferred to give birth at home so they could keep the placentas. Hospitals reportedly kept placentas to make into medicine. There were also reports of women selling their children.

One defector told The New Yorker, she knew of two starving children who “went to a noodle maker and begged. The noodle maker gave them some noodles. They ate and fell asleep on the shop floor. Then the owner killed them with an axe to put their meat into the noodles because pork was very expensive at that time.”

These reports were unconfirmed and the sources were mainly Chinese truck drivers who were given cigarettes or money if they came up with some shocking news. Many aid workers have dismissed reports of selling children for food and cannibalism as "rubbish." Most of the claims of such are anecdotal and hard to prove.

Slow Starvation in North Korea

The food crisis in North Korea was not so much a textbook famine, in which people in specific hard hit areas of a country don't have enough food to feed themselves but people in other areas have enough to food to survive. Rather, it more like the slow starvation of an entire population.

Michael Ross of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) told Newsweek in April, 1997, "In Africa, the most vulnerable groups in society fall through the safety net first. In North Korea, its more like the net is being lowered inch by inch, until it hits rock bottom. That's just about where North Korea is now."

On why North Korea could not be compared with Africa, Trevor Rowe of the World Food program told the New York Times, "The difference is that in Ethiopia and Somalia you had pockets that were affected because of drought or war, but it wasn’t a generalized phenomena. In North Korea it is far more generalized. As the food goes down, everyone is suffering."

The food crisis was described as socialist famine in which everyone slowly starved together while the elite and military lived better. Rolf Haus of WFP told Newsweek, "Whatever food is available is distributed across the whole population."

Pyongyang residents described returning to their home towns and seeing bodies piled in the streets. One woman told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “I remember walking through a station, avoiding the bodies of people who died of starvation. In 1998 all food rations were stopped and my third daughter died of malnutrition.”

Malnourished and Abandoned Children During the North Korean Famine

According to a 1998 UNICEF report three quarters of children under 5 in North Korea were malnourished and one in six acutely so. According to some reports children were so malnourished they couldn't stand or hold their heads up in school and stared listlessly into space and "sit down all day and then to sleep."

Photographs taken in orphanages showed children with bloated bellies, bow legs and stick-like arms, who were too weak to cry and had feet so swollen the couldn’t stand up. There also children with open festering sores who were going bald and losing the color of their hair (a sign of protein deficiency) and had swelling around the eyes (a sign of edema, water collecting in skin tissues), Some developed white or dark patches on their skin from lack of nutrients.

After one journalist commented that one group of children didn’t look so bad, a UNICEF worker told her, "Those children look as well as they do because their parents and their grandparents have sacrificed their food rations for them."

In some parts of North Korea, there were reports of parents abandoning their children because of hunger. In spite of a high number of malnourished children, one defector said awards were still given to "maternal heros" who had more than 10 children.

At one orphanage about 70 percent of the orphans were from parents who died and 30 percent were simply abandoned. One North Korean doctor told the Washington Post, "Some parents just put them outside on the street and leave them to nature. Sometimes people pick them up and bring them here. They just die."

Stunted Growth and Weak People

As many 2.6 million children suffered stunted growth caused by malnutrition during the famine in the 1990s. Aid workers described malnourished children in the winter of 1997 as "nutritional dwarfs." Children that looked three years old were six. Those there were ten looked five. Four-years weighed around 10 pounds. They moved slowly to conserve energy and their skin hung from their wrists and ankles. Long-term malnutrition can leave children permanently undersized but they usually recover mentally.

In some places a child is considered full grown if the top of his head reaches the bottom of his mother’s nose. Stephen Linton, an expert on North Korea that visited the country more than 80 times, said the food shortage could result in "generational stunting" and said that government may have decided let relief workers into the country because "they don't want to face the 21st century with a stunted population facing serious growth and developmental problems...If they are malnourished in the critical years, you can't make it up. You can grow up with a generation of cretins."

There were reports people beggars at railway stations asking for scraps of food, exhausted people slumped beside the road, schools letting out early so children could get food, and children so weak they couldn't even sing the Welcome Song when foreign guests arrived. Malnourished and hungry people with weak immune systems died from diarrhea, measles, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Defectors reported seeing people with faces that had “turned black” from malnutrition.

In November 1997, Hilary Mackenzie wrote in Newsweek, "Everywhere I saw people slumped by the side of the road, exhausted and starving and people stripping bark from the city's trees for food.” One Chinese Korean who visited North Korea told the Korea Times, "I saw that people didn't move and I thought they were all dead. But later I realized they were too feeble to move because they hadn't eaten in days."

In some towns no people over 60 were visible because the elderly reportedly gave up their food rations so their children could survive. The elderly were too sick to get out of bed but they didn't kill themselves out of fear that their food ration might be taken away. Mackenzie wrote: “On family visits, I watched the elderly give their meager rations to children: one grandmother keeled over in front of my eyes."

Bodies, Corpses and Trying to Count the Dead

In May, 1997, there were reports of corpses of children lying on the streets, family's committing suicide, parents abandoning their children, hillsides covered with fresh graves, orphanages with four times their usual load, hearses driving through towns and stopping and houses to see if there were any bodies to pick up, dump trucks filled with bodies that were dumped in open graves.

John Iwasaki wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “Dark clouds drifted in and lightning flashed as the mother uprooted plants on a North Korean mountainside, searching for anything edible to feed her emaciated son. She heard the cry of crows and grew anxious. After hurrying home, she made a thin soup and tried to wake her child. "But there was no response," recalled the mother, Ok Soon Hong. "He was cold and dead. ... He was so young and so beautiful, but was gone forever. I could not do anything but cry all night in deep grievance, wondering what happened to Korea." Her father was arrested on unknown charges and executed. Ten other family members, including two toddler nephews, were taken to a prison camp after a distant relative fell into political disfavor.” [Source: John Iwasaki, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 26, 2003]

One defector said that he knew of 30 people that had died of hunger in his hometown of Kaesong near the DMZ. He said parents strangled their children before killing themselves. Defectors told AP about a truck in their village “going around every morning picking up the bodies of people who had died the night before who had no relatives left to pick them up.”

There were towns that smelled of death. Stories about local morticians “renting” caskets and then burying the bodies without caskets. Elderly people were found dead in fields after apparently dying there on purpose so their families didn't have to feed them anymore. But If there were so many reported dead then why didn’t Westerners see them. No Westerners saw or photographed any bodies. There was little concrete evidence of bodies like that described by defectors.

Deaths were difficult to count because the North Korean government tried their best to cover up the disaster and people did not die in particular places like they did in Africa. They died all over, largely in places aid workers are not allowed.

The death rates are assumed to have been the highest in remote province where political undesirable were exiled. No foreigners were allowed to visit these areas. One U.S. official told Newsweek, "The regime has just written off certain regions of North Korea as marginal to its survival." One official told Time, that Pyongyang "feels that the people who are starving to death [in the northeast] are expendable."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: Daily NK, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, The Telegraph, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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