Monday, November 10, 2008

"Even in my Dreams there is no Food"

North Korean Orphans- source

Every month, the Blog Catalog asks bloggers to write about a specific topic; this month they want us to write about refugees. Since I'm a food blogger, I thought the following post would be appropriate.

The news in the U.S. has been filled with stories about the "economic crisis" as the world financial markets have gone haywire. Despite it all I've felt a sense of security living in a part of the world with a long growing season, plenty of rainfall and sunlight, where the soil is still healthy and where I have access to seeds to plant and land to plant it in. Where I can grow food in my backyard and where, if necessary, I'm free to forage, hunt and to find food for myself and those I love.

These same freedoms don't apply to all. What if you lived in a land where the government restricted your movement, keeping you from finding food? What if you were you consigned to a remote plot of land where the soil was infertile and even in some places toxic, where due to drought and political instability and poor agricultural practices, you were unable to raise food and had learned to rely for years on government distributions that increasingly grew leaner and leaner- as imposed by a cruel government. Such is the situation in North Korea where people go hungry daily. Below are stories of people eating grass gruel, boiling their leather belts to make soup and kids dying from stealing potatoes or eating poisonous toads.

A friend posted this story on his blog during a summer trip to China to take intensive language classes. He's passionate about helping bring to light the situation of North Korean refugees who have been suffering from famine for many years.

North Koreans who flee into China in search of food have been tortured and killed. Here's one article about the North Korean refugee atrocities.

For a background about the FOOD CRISIS in North Korea, read this report from Amnesty International
For more than a decade, the people of North Korea - one of the most isolated nations on earth - have suffered from famine and acute food shortages. Hundreds of thousands of people have died and many millions more have suffered from chronic malnutrition. The actions of the North Korean government exacerbated the effects of the famine and the subsequent food crisis, denying the existence of the problem for many years, and imposing ever-tighter controls on the population to hide the true extent of the disaster. North Korea remains dependent on food aid to feed its people, yet government policy still prevents the swift and equitable distribution of this aid, while the population is denied the right to freedom of movement, which would enable people to go and search for food.

These stories are from newsletters by the Good Friends blog

I’m currently in Dandong, on the border between North Korea and China, after visiting some other border towns such as Yanji and Tumen. The situation here has been fascinating. I will post some of the insights I have gained on this trip over the coming days. Some people ask me why I am so interested in North Korea… You only have to know a little bit about what is going on there, and have an iota of heart to realize how much these people need us. A few examples (of many) from the last few triweekly newsletters put out by “Good Friends”, an organization with many ties to “the inside”:

“Even in my dreams, there is no food”

All the students and teachers in Taetan County seem to have lost hope and say that the school is very quiet. Teachers give their students classroom assignments such as reading and other activities, but soon retire to another place to lie down because they are suffering from constant hunger. When recess begins, the teachers leave the classroom. The students barely make any trips to the restrooms and do not run around on the field. Both the children and the teachers sleep on their desks because they feel so hungry. Jung Chul, a 12 year old student, says that he does not have the physical strength for anything other than sleep. He says that he needs to maintain himself with minimal body movements because his hunger makes him feel like he will faint at any moment. He went on to say, “During sleep, I enjoy dreaming about eating. But in the middle of my dream, no food appears, and when it does, somebody takes it away from my mouth. This situation makes me
very sad.”

Serious Body Swelling Due to Grass Poisoning in Taetan County

The farmers at the collective farm in Taetan town, Taetan County, South Hwanghae Province do their work while living on a few potatoes and grass gruel. Despite the burden of weeding all day long on such minimal sustenance, their workload is never reduced. The farmers are complaining about the pain of such hard work. Although there is an assigned portion that has to be accomplished in a day, many farmers fall short, saying that it is impossible for them to do the work. Farmers in Taetan County now survive on grass porridge. Unfortunately, in the current season the grass contains a toxin. As a result, people are suffering from serious swelling in the face and in the body no matter how hard they try to remove the toxin. Due to the fear of grass poison people are now eating fresh water fish, marsh snails, and frogs in the rice field or in the marsh.

Children Killed By Eating Toads

In Sambong District of Daehongdan County, Ryanggang Province, there has been an increase in the number of children being killed by eating toads. Children used to catch and eat frogs that hatched in the marsh regions along the Suhdoosoo River until the number of frogs declined noticeably. Presently, toads are hatching. Old wives tales tell of toad’s poisons being used as medicine in cases of cancer. But toads can also kill if eaten without being treated to get rid of the poison, especially weak children whose immunity have been compromised already by malnutrition. Han Myung-sun (43 yrs old) of Sambong District, Daehongdan County, says, “Frogs that are just hatched don’t have any poison, but they start to develop them just when the tadpoles begin to develop legs and tails. Kids can’t wait till the tadpoles grow into frogs and eat the tadpoles by scooping them up with screens but some died last month through food poisoning. Now we no longer have frogs but have toads. Kids think that they are the same and eat them by roasting them. They ate the toads with potatoes, which also are poisonous when they start to sprout. So 5-6 kids were killed eating toads and potatoes in one night. The whole place was overcome with a sense of foreboding when we had to take care of these little bodies.” Choi Seung-chul (42) also agreed, “Kids thought that they could cook toad meat with corn power into some type of porridge but instead they roasted it and ate, and died.” One class in Sambong Middle School lost over 10 kids in just two months out of a class of 36 to starvation or food poisoning.

Soldiers in Ryanggang Province Eat Cooked Leather Belts

In early June, the commander of a unit stationed in Ryanggang Province was arrested upon inspection. The charge was that he sold army uniforms in the market. The Army had neither rice nor money and the enlisted men cooked their belts to eat. On May 28th, he had witnessed the enlisted men boiling their leather belts in a hope to drink the liquid. He asked them, “What are you doing?” They answered, “We were too hungry.” Shocked and horrified by that answer, he sold the winter uniforms in the market. He bought rice with the money and fed the men once or twice, but caught during the inspection. “Right now the men are dying. I had to sell the uniforms to feed them,” he explained but they did not allow for the extenuating circumstances.
Kim Chul-seung ( 38 ) said all the leather belts distributed to the soldiers last March had disappeared completely in his unit. “(The liquid from the boiled leather belts) I even tried. It fills your stomach and you feel better. Boiled cow skin tastes pretty good. You cannot eat leather by itself but once boiled in the water, the taste of meat soaks out in the liquid and you drink it. The drums, made of pig skin or cow skin, have all gone without a trace. Even in the time of Arduous March, we did not dream of eating leather belts. But, now everything that was made of leather is cooked for food. Some soldiers can’t wait and rush to chew leather from the drums. Now is tougher than it was in the mid 90s.

He begged for anything to eat, saying, “What have we done in our previous lives to suffer like this? How resentful are those soldiers that eat even their leather belts? They were all our children, drafted to the army. They were forced to, knowing that they may die of hunger in weakened physical condition. Please find some food to feed them.”

Kkotjebis (Homeless Children) Suffocated While Trying To Pilfer Potatoes in Storage Caves

Daehongdan County of Ryanggang Province has a reputation for being a place where one can eat potatoes that cover the streets. That’s how well the potato crops do here, although it’s too high in altitude for corn to grow well. The first potato crops come in around August 20th. Right now, June and July are the most difficult time of the year for food. They store the potatoes in large storage cave over the winter. When April rolls around, workers cut off chunks of the potatoes with the bud attached and plant them. The rest of potatoes are given to the farm workers, which amounts to less than half of the original volume of the stored potatoes.

The potatoes are stored in underground chambers that can measure up to 40 meter on each side. The air is filled with the poisonous vapor from potatoes. There is a lid every three meters for ventilation and the potatoes need to be turned over to prevent rotting. It takes one whole day to fully ventilate the storage chamber, and only after that workers get in to remove potatoes that have rotted

This year, there are many kids who die by suffocation as they tried to sneak into these underground chambers and pilfer potatoes. Although there are guards they are inside the post and the kids sneak by and enter down through the lids and close them behind since they don’t want to get caught. In this state, the kids soon gag on the poisonous vapor and die due to lack of oxygen.

Kwon Soon-young (35 yrs old) says, “This past May and June, there are many kids who suffocated to death as soon as they entered these storage sheds. You have to have oxygen tanks, but obviously kids don’t have that. Probably less than one out of ten kids succeed in stealing potatoes. But the hungry kids still try out of desperation.”

Amnesty International reports: (From the Web site) Signs of serious food shortages became evident to the outside world in 1991, when the North Korean government launched a "let’s eat two meals a day" campaign. In 1992, PDS rations were cut by ten percent, and thereafter distribution became irregular, particularly to the north-east. PDS distributions reportedly stopped nationwide during the summer of 1994, except on two to three national holidays.(24)

During 1994, when food shortages started to affect the functioning of the PDS, the North Korean government reportedly stopped sending food shipments to the remote north-eastern provinces of North and South Hamgyong and Ryangang. These mountainous, traditionally food-deprived provinces were highly dependent on the PDS system and famine appears to have started in these regions in 1994, two years before it hit the rice-growing western provinces.(25) The failure of the already poor domestic agricultural production (see table 1) after severe floods in 1995 and 1996, followed by severe drought, resulted in a drastic reduction to food supplies to the PDS. By 1997 the PDS was reportedly only able to supply 6 percent of the population.(26)

In August 1997, UNICEF expressed concern that the number of children suffering from the effects of food shortages has risen dramatically in recent months, with some 80,000 children severely malnourished and in imminent peril of succumbing to starvation or disease. UNICEF and other UN agencies also estimated that about 38 per cent or 800,000 children under five were suffering from malnutrition to a serious, but lesser degree. The worst suffering was "among children who have lost or have been separated from their parents. Up to half the children in some orphanages are severely malnourished."(27)

The PDS was reportedly unable to supply any food at all in the 1998 ‘lean season’ (April to August) or from March to June 1999 (see table 2). In January 1998 there was an official announcement that individual families were henceforth responsible for feeding themselves rather than relying on the PDS. Between March and September 1998, in order to survive, people were forced to eat alternative foods that had very little nutritional value such as edible roots, cabbage and corn stalks and grasses. Grass finely ground and mixed with some cereal and an enzyme then cooked as noodles or cake was also eaten. The WFP/FAO feared that these alternative foods may, in fact, have exacerbated existing health problems, such as diarrhoea in children.(28)

Reliable figures on North Korea are difficult to obtain, given the lack of access and barriers to information gathering. Estimates of the number of deaths that resulted from the 1990s famine vary widely, ranging from 220,000 to 3.5 million. Some sources claim the famine destroyed between 12 and 15 percent of the total population.(29) Economist Marcus Noland recently estimated that the famine resulted in the deaths of between 600,000 to 1 million people, out of a pre-famine population of approximately 22 million (between 2.7 and 4.5 percent of the total population).(30) However the "social damage was much higher if one considers the fall-off in the fertility curve caused by famine."(31)


Luke Hutchison said...

Great article, Jen... I still want to know how between 10 and 15% of the population of an ENTIRE COUNTRY (North Korea) could die of famine in the late 90s, while NOBODY NOTICED... By many accounts the current building famine may be far worse than that one. Perhaps because the world, especially Asia, was going through a financial crisis back then? Then the coming famine doesn't bode well for the North Koreans either, as we all worry about how we are going to afford the next CD, the next gallon of gas to put in our hummer, the next sweater from Banana Republic...

Jen said...


Thanks for your response. I'm glad you've noticed what's been going on in North Korea and are willing to share your knowledge. Reading stories about the plight there puts my life in perspective.

It's also good to hear your healthy aversion to materialism. It's so easy to live insulated from what's going on in the world. It's easy to think of what we don't have and forget how abundant our lives really are... but at what cost? Who suffers most for our materialism?