Did You Know About the North Korean Famine?

Ok, not really related to the usual themes of this blog, but I've been a little obsessed with this topic since I read an article about it in the New Yorker last week. They don't have the article online for free but here's a link to a slide show about the article. Apparently, there was a famine in North Korean in the mid-90's that killed 2.5 million people, conservatively. No one has definitive numbers because it was a crime to report "starvation" as a cause of death. I never knew about it until reading this article and when I ask other people who are usually up on current events, no one else had heard about it either. I think it's amazing that an entire country can keep a secret like that. Here is a link to an article in the New York Times in 1996 about the "upcoming famine".

The New Yorker article was mind blowing, especially for someone who loves to eat, like me. She focuses on this one woman, Mrs. Song, who lost her mother, husband and 25 year old son to starvation. She describes the horrible things they were forced to eat, including porridges made out of ground corn cobs/husks and bean stalks. Flavoring soup with grass. And mostly all of her doomed attempts at making money and procuring food for her family.

Here is an excerpt from the online abstract (you need a sub to read the whole thing online):

Even after three members of her family died of starvation, Mrs. Song believed that North Korea was the greatest nation on earth. Mrs. Song used to go twice a week to a food-distribution center near her apartment, in the coastal city of Chongjin. Mrs. Song would hand over her ration book, a small sum of money, tickets from the garment factory, and the clerk would calculate her entitlements: seven hundred grams each per day for her and her husband, three hundred grams for her mother-in-law, and four hundred for each school-aged child living at home. For all its rhetoric about self-sufficiency, North Korea was dependent on the generosity of its neighbors. By the early nineteen-nineties, the Russians, impatient with North Korea’s failure to repay loans, raised their prices for food, fuel, and raw materials. Enduring hunger became part of one’s patriotic duty. 

As I prepared my Shabbat food on Friday, I really appreciated the meat I was able to buy and prepare with such ease, the olive oil I was able to drizzle on my fresh vegetables (oil became completely unavailable at any price in the North Korea in the late 90's), the oven I was able to just turn on with the flick of a wrist.

Here is a link to the author's upcoming book.


Leora said...

Reminds me of the starvation period my grandmother survived in the 1920s in Russia.

How will they ever get rid of their awful government?

Anonymous said...

I actually did know about this. My father mentioned it many times while talking about the dictator that controls North Korea. But your mentioning it brings the horror of the human side of it to light.

David_on_the_Lake said...

I find North Korea to be so morbidly fascinating.
People have no clue what's going on there. It's amazing that in 2009 there's a world entirely cut off from the rest of the world. Millions of people living under the worst oppression. But the fanatic loyalty they have for "The Dear Leader" is reminiscent of Stalinist times.

Commenter Abbi said...

Leora: I have no idea how they will get rid of their government, it seems really hopeless.

Anon: I'm glad I was able to humanize such a sad situation.

David: I think they are the last Stalinist Communist government, which is why it's so familiar. I agree, it is morbidly fascinating. I'm glad that woman was able to get out and realize starving wasn't her fault!

Upper West Side Mom said...

I too am morbidly fascinated by North Korea. As you know the North Koreans are severely malnourished. I remember reading an article that wrote of North Koreans who tried to illegally emigrate to China. The Chinese government was able to pick out the North Koreans from the general Chinese population and deport them because they were considerably shorter due to life long malnutrition.

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