In North Korea in the mid-1990s, as a great famine wiped out perhaps 10 percent of the population … it wasn’t unusual for people to disappear; they were dying by the thousands, maybe millions. But dark rumors were spreading, too horrifying to believe, too persistent to ignore.
“Don’t buy any meat if you don’t know where it comes from,” one Chongjin woman whispered to a friend, who later defected and recounted the conversation to reporter Barbara Demick.
Fear of cannibalism spread. People avoided the meat in street-side soup vendors and warned children not to be alone at night. At least one person in Chongjin was arrested and executed for eating human flesh.
The panic, Demick concludes, may have exceeded the actual threat. “It does not seem,” she writes, “that the practice was widespread.” But it does appear to have happened.
North Korea’s famine is over, but the stories of desperate men and women, driven so insane by starvation that they consume their own children, have resurfaced. Last week, Asia Press published a report alleging that thousands recently died of starvation in a North Korean province, a trend that is sometimes called a micro-famine. The story was sourced to Rimjingang, a collection of underground North Korean journalists whose work is generally considered reputable. According to Rimjingang’s sources, the famine, like others before it, had led to cannibalism. One man, they said, had been arrested and executed for killing and eating his children.
Is cannibalism still happening? The simple answer is that we don’t, and can’t, know for sure.