North Korea’s famine in the 1990s unleashed a Darwinian struggle for survival that swiftly eliminated many of the most vulnerable in an already sharply stratified society, a U.N. panel heard Thursday.
“People are treated without dignity in North Korea ― and in some cases like sub-humans,” said Ji Seong-ho, who was 14 when he lost his hand and left leg trying to steal coal from a moving train to sell for food during the famine years. Ji, now 31, was one of a number of North Korean defectors called to testify before a U.N. Commission of Inquiry into human rights in North Korea that is currently holding hearings in Seoul.
During the 1994-98 famine, which saw hundreds of thousands starve to death, ordinary North Koreans had to focus all their energies on scavenging to stay alive. Food was so scarce that there was little to share and those who could not fend for themselves ― the very young, the elderly, the disabled ― were at particular risk.
“We had disabled people in our town, but by the time the food situation had begun to improve slightly in the late 1990s, we didn’t see them anymore, meaning they must have died,” Ji said.
Unable to walk without crutches and with no job prospects, Ji managed to cross the border illegally into China in 2000 in an effort to find food for his family. Police caught him on his return, held him for a week and, Ji said, beat him severely. Ji finally escaped for good in 2006 and settled down in South Korea, where he now studies law and speaks publicly about life in the North.