Even a simple piece of fruit was unfamiliar to Lee So-yeon when she fled North Korea seven years ago. She had never seen an orange. So when she came across one at a South Korean market, she bit into it like an apple — peel and all.
During the famine of the 1990s, Lee was forced to eat grass from the mountains to survive. “We were told that any grass that rabbits eat is edible,” she says. “So we picked any grass we could find that wasn’t poisonous and mixed it with rice, or used it to make grass porridge…. Children were suffering from malnutrition. Their stomachs were very swollen. … Their whole faces were covered with fine hair and their hair was a very light brown color instead of black. Their arms and legs were so skinny they looked like tree branches.”
Now, North Koreans are again facing a “looming humanitarian disaster” according to the United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who told CNN, “We call for the international community to support the DPRK and help the DPRK in a respect of what is going to be a very difficult famine. … You may well see starvation on a massive scale unless there’s a massive relief effort in the weeks and months to come.”
The Asia deputy regional director for the U.N. World Food Programme, John Aylieff says. “It doesn’t take long for malnutrition to spike … So a short and fairly serious shock to the food system of the country can create quite serious implications for the population.”
State media, which usually paint only a rosy picture of life for North Korea’s citizens, have been publishing reports about what they call the worst drought in 100 years.
“Their decision to officially report the drought in their internal media is remarkable,” says Andrei Lankov, a professor at South Korea’s Kookmin University. “It’s a signal to both domestic and foreign audience that probably something will go bad later this year. So they will probably apply for foreign aid.”