There were times and places in North Korea in the mid-1990s, as a great famine wiped out perhaps 10 percent of the population, that children feared to sleep in the open. Some of them had wandered in from the countryside to places like Chongjin, an industrial town on the coast, where they lived on streets and in railroad stations. It wasn't unusual for people to disappear; they were dying by the thousands, maybe millions. But dark rumors were spreading, too horrifying to believe, too persistent to ignore.
"Don't buy any meat if you don't know where it comes from," one Chongjin woman whispered to a friend, who later defected and recounted the conversation to the reporter Barbara Demick for her book, "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea." Fear of cannibalism, like the famine supposedly driving it, spread. People avoided the meat in streetside soup vendors and warned children not to be alone at night. At least one person in Chongjin was arrested and executed for eating human flesh.
The panic, Demick concludes, may have exceeded the actual threat. "It does not seem," she writes, "that the practice was widespread." But it does appear to have happened.
One defected military officer, who fled with his family into China, repeated the horror story that had long followed mass famines. "People are going insane with hunger. They even kill and eat their own infants. This kind of thing is happening in many places," he said, according to the North Korea-focused postscript to Jasper Becker's history of the famine that wracked China 30 years earlier, in which reports of cannibalism were widespread.
North Korea's famine is over, but the stories of desperate men and women, driven so insane by starvation that they consume their own children, have resurfaced. Last week, Asia Press published a report alleging that thousands recently died of starvation in a North Korean province, a trend that is sometimes called a micro-famine. The story was sourced to Rimjingang, a collection of underground North Korean journalists whose work is generally considered reputable. According to Rimjingang's sources, the famine, like others before it, had led to cannibalism. One man, they said, had been arrested and executed for killing and eating his children.
The story of that man has swept through the Western media, a harrowing tale of the horrors still unfolding behind North Korea's largely closed borders. But is it true? Could something so awful still be happening?
The simple answer is that we don't, and can't, know for sure. North Korea-watchers seem skeptical about this one, sensational report, but they often point out that stories of micro-famine and cannibalism are coming at a worryingly regular pace. Joshua Stanton, who runs the site One Free Korea, wrote in May, the last time that stories of cannibalism leaked out of North Korea, "My first reaction to these reports years ago was skepticism, but if you hear enough people say the same thing (see here and here), you start to think they can’t all be lying."
North Korea is supposed to have solved its famine problem, in part with food aid from the foreign powers it considers mortal enemies, and it largely has. Officially, North Korea's economy is collectivist; the state owns all products, including every single crop grown within the national borders. But, as China and the Soviet Union learned, this isn't very good at keeping people fed. Since the 1990s famine, the regime has tolerated informal food markets and small, private farm plots. When the official, state-run food market fails, which it inevitably does, the secondary market can keep people fed.
And yet micro-famines are still possible, or at least plausible, in North Korea. The government can't bring itself to surrender control over food. Though agricultural trade has more flexibility now than it did 15 or 20 years ago, it is still one of the world's most rigidly controlled. With a weak secondary market and virtually no social safety net, it's not difficult to imagine local North Korean communities facing the sort of brief but deadly famines that the rest of the world has largely learned to avoid. Unlike in places such as East Africa, where thousands died of hunger last year, the primary causes are not environmental but human.
The regime needs the secondary food trade to prevent mass starvation, but it appears to fear these markets as threats to its power. There is likely an ongoing cat-and-mouse game, with the state working to keep farmers sufficiently weak, and the secondary markets sufficiently spare, that everyone still relies on the regime to feed themselves. It's about power and control, and it places North Korean families at real risk.
Recently, members of China's sympathetic state-run media were allowed to visit a special "economic zone" across the border, a commune of thousands of North Koreans who grew their own food. During the tour, the North Korean minders let slip that all 13,000 residents would be forcibly relocated and replaced by new workers, a disturbing policy that seems meant to secure state control over food at the risk of its continued production.
State-run "collectivist" food distribution systems have always failed, leading to some of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of the last century. North Korea's failed catastrophically in the 1990s, and though the system has changed significantly since then, it's difficult to know the degree to which informal markets and private plots are tolerated.
In an arbitrary and closed system, the state's approach might vary from place to place and time to time. Kim Jong Eun has worked aggressively to consolidate his power since taking over a year ago, a campaign that might well extend to the agricultural sector.
Maybe the stories of cannibalism are nothing more than that; rumors, stories from two decades prior that devolved into folklore. But cannibalism, for all the voyeuristic horror it inspires, is a symptom of something much worse: starvation and social breakdown, the conditions for which remain in North Korea. Perhaps most telling is that North Koreans themselves still seem to consider it possible, the defectors and underground reports still whispering of starvation and worse, a medieval horror in the 21st century.