For the first time(as far as I know) a S. Korean "progressive" newspaper reported about the cruel reality in N. Korea without any "sugarcoating"!! Last Wednesday(9.19) Kyunghyang Shinmun("leftist, moderate progressive", according to Wikipedia) published the following feature:
A Famine Caused by Exploitation and Inequality in a Jungle Where Death and Crime Run Rampant
They existed in the form of man as a phenomenon.
Their senses were dull to the deaths, violence, and crimes born inevitably from the long and cruel famine they endured. Their eyes sparkled only at survival and money, and there was no trace of anyone who used the words like tomorrow or hope.
They did not trust others. The instinct telling them that one can only be protected by one's own self clouded over their eyes. Strangely, they were obsessed with religion. But when they talked about their children, they often showed tears.
These were the North Koreans we met near the North Korea-China border. They were people at the "crossroad" just about to lose their humanity completely. To them human rights was a luxury.
Parts of North Korea are facing "the worst famine and starvation since 2000" was the common statement of the North Koreans whom The Kyunghyang Shinmun reporters met in China.
The situation in Hwanghae-do was in fact graver than in other areas--a large number of people recently died of starvation there despite the fact that it's the largest breadbasket of North Korea.
Crops had failed due to the flood last year and the drought earlier this year. One manager from the farming area in Hwanghae-do estimated that the people who starved to death in his village would add up to about 10% of the total 60 families. He explained that they had bad crops in the spring, when food is scarce, and that people died the most in April and May.
He recalled, "when there were many deaths, we just looked on as 5~6 families perished in a day."
One middle-management official of the Workers' Party of Korea from South Hwanghae Province conveyed the famine situation in detail. "The usual death rate in South Hwanghae Province is one in a thousand. But last April, the rate was higher than 30 times that. Since the population of South Hwanghae Province is about 2 million, I think about 60,000 people died."
One person, who disposed the bodies in this area stated, "The number of people who starved to death surged this year. We couldn't dispose of the bodies properly, so we waited until 10 bodies were gathered and then buried them together." They made a grave without a burial mound in a low hill near the town. He said they couldn't do the work without the half bottle of liquor they were provided with.
Starvation makes people suffer pain over a very long time before they die. Among the people who put up with the shortage of food for tens of days, some chose to take their own lives to avoid death by starvation.
The manager from the farming area, who crossed over to China a month before looking for a way to earn money, told us the story of how a neighboring family killed themselves. One day in April, when they ran out of the food that they had harvested last fall, his neighbor, Cheori's mother (alias) came to him and borrowed 3 kilograms of corn.
She then put rat poison in the corn, which the family shared for their last meal and died. The manager was later found guilty of lending her the food and was called into the Safety Department for a while after that.
The number of people starving to death is rising this year in the Hwanghae-do breadbasket, which did not suffer even during the Arduous March, when millions of people starved to death in the late 1990s.
After interviewing over twenty North Korean residents, we have come to the conclusion that this situation is not just a case of a temporary shortage of food due to natural disasters. The rice yield decreased each year because of soil and seed degradation accumulated over the years and because of a lack of fertilizers, pesticides and electricity.
In addition, the North Korean government imposed the same quota when they collected the provisions for the capital and the military failing to consider last year's flood and this spring's drought. The famine in the biggest breadbasket, which fed the nation, was an artificial famine caused by the authority's exploitation and a long build up of social inequality.
Asia's progressive economist, Amartya Sen saw famines as a problem with democracy rather than a problem caused by natural disasters. It's because under a dictatorship, extending the life of the regime is top priority when distributing the budget even in crisis situations.
Therefore, when there is a shortage of food, residents, who have no safety net, are likely to starve to death. Sen claims that an absolute famine or shortage of food does not occur in a developed democratic nation.
Jiro Ishimaru, the Chief Editor at Asia Press, who has met with North Korean residents at the North Korea-China border for 15 years, also insisted, "The famine sweeping across North Korea's farms this year is not the result of natural disasters, but the failure of North Korean socialism, which they have overstrained to sustain for decades."
He claimed, "Currently, the system in North Korea is worn out, and they've come to a state where it's difficult for them to even maintain their most important breadbasket. You can say that the North Korean government has weakened considerably." He pointed out that, "It (the famine) is expected to be worse next year than this year. North Korean officials must request the aid of the international society immediately."
It's not just the famine. The violence and crimes, the collapse of social order, extreme individualism all triggered by the famine are making the current North Korean society more ill, and pushing the already shattered human rights over the cliff. The number of felonies such as robbery and murder has increased.
The Workers' Party official from Hwanghae-do told us a story of young men who ran away after killing an old man while stealing corn from their village. He added, "There are so many thieves, we can't relax even with our doors locked." It's because the thieves break down the walls to get in.
According to the official, recently thieves are robbing more houses of officials, and there have been frequent incidents where people were stabbed to death while trying to guard their home. A health official in his fifties, who is also from Hwanghae-do, said that thoughts like, "The dead are idiots. The living are the heroes, whether they rob or kill," are prevalent.
Contempt for senior citizens, the not economically active population, has intensified. One Hwanghae-do resident said, "More and more children refuse to take care of their parents. There's even a tendency to treat their parents like animals, since all they do is dip into the food."
Recently, in this area, an old lady died by hanging upside down in a large crock filled with water, just to keep from being a burden on her children. The Hwanghae-do official in his fifties sighed, "Everyone has become hardened because it's so difficult to survive. Social order, manners, these things have all disappeared, and now only the law of the jungle remains."
Some claim that the distribution and consumption of "human meat," which took place during the Arduous March in the 1990s, have reoccurred recently. A man in his fifties living in North Pyongan Province told us, "The Safety Department investigated a home, which had been starving these recent months, because the smell of meat suddenly came from their place.
They revealed that the younger brother ate the older brother, who had died." According to the manager from Hwanghae-do, a person was executed in April for distributing the human meat of 11 people as pork. Kim said, "I was born and grew up in this village, but this is the first time anything like this has happened."
Professor Chung Byung-ho of Hanyang University's Department of Cultural Anthropology stated that when a famine extends over a long period of time, "the family or small units of human relationships similar to the family collapse, and the selfishness, which deems only one's own survival important, increases."
However, Chung added, "Problems like the distribution of human meat is deviant behavior in extreme circumstances. The real problem with North Korea's famine is that regional deviations are much greater, and that they are spread out locally in intense conditions."
He explained, "Sociocultural problems like their wide-ranging impoverished way of life has tortured more people than starvation over a long period of time. In fact, most of the Hwanghae-do and Pyongan-do residents we interviewed did not seem to trust their country any longer, which failed to provide them with a social safety net.
When we asked one trader in his thirties from Hwanghae-do by phone what he was most concerned about recently, he answered, "There is always the fear that robbers will get me since public order has deteriorated." The Hwanghae-do health official, who was doing manual labor while temporarily staying in China, expressed his anger stating, "The country's a thief."
He also mentioned that people now just snorted at government policies. Discontentment with inequality has also built up. One person even said, "The people in Pyongyang may not even know that people outside are starving to death."
Most of the people we met did not know the meaning of the term, "human rights." One resident of North Hamgyong Province said, "Instead of the term ‘human rights,' there is the term, ‘right of freedom' in Joseon. But there is no one who thinks he can fully exercise his right of freedom." To them human rights is a concept that does not exist.
The words of one Hwanghae-do resident, who kept beating his chest, continue to resound in our minds: "Our people, who were once courteous, are now in a state worse than the primeval ages. It's so heartbreaking that I can't bear to look."
☞ Hwanghae Still Suffering Widespread Hunger (DailyNK, 9.25)