William J. Furney Headshot

North Korea Eats Itself

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AP
AP

Probably nowhere on Earth, not even amid the ongoing massacres in Syria and its disconnected government, is the contrast between fact and fantasy so stark as in North Korea, an almost unworldly dystopia where this week its po-faced leaders declared, "A nuclear test is what the people demand" while the downtrodden people themselves starved to the point where they are reported to have begun to eat one another.

No, it is not a further rusty-sabre-ratting exercise in attempted nuclear prowess and groundless, deluded grandstanding that the country's 24.4 million people want; it is food on their plates, the security of wages and an actual, functioning economy.

Even the North's longstanding and entrenched ally, China, seems to be losing patience with this most recalcitrant of children, making the unusual move last week of supporting a United Nations Security Council Resolution to impose additional sanctions -- mainly asset freezes and travel bans -- on errant Pyongyang for continually flouting a ban on testing ballistic weapons and conducting nuclear tests.

Hazardously, this most unstable of countries is ostensibly run by the youngest leader in the world, the circa-30-year-old Kim Jong-un, the Facebook-loving boy-tyrant intent on making his mark against perceived foes who could just as easily be his friends -- were he to yield to modernity, progress and the plight of his people -- and who wears an expression in public outings that suggests he may well think this is all just a video game.

Irate at the UN business, Mr Kim lashed out at South Korea, declaring his intent to "take strong physical countermeasures against it," and ruling out further talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear aspirations.

Amid this bluster flaps a fetid tapestry of the very worst of human suffering. Undercover reporters from the Asiapress news agency, which has a focus on North Korea and is based in Japan, discovered last year that the depths of starvation in the North are so severe that people are being forced into cannibalism. In a report released by Asiapress this week, an official of the Korean Workers' Party detailed in a rare clandestine meeting with the reporters that on visits he made to farming villages in the middle of last year he found only infinite despair. "There was no food at all," he was quoted as saying.

"In a village named Hwayangri in Chondang," he added, "a man who went mad with hunger boiled his own child and ate his flesh and got arrested."

An illicit trade in human meat has sprung up around North Korea, according to the journalists, who spoke to local residents. One man was executed by firing squad last May after being found guilty of killing 11 people and selling their flesh as pork, one of the reporters found. Elsewhere, a father killed his two children and tried to eat them; he, too, was executed. Another man "killed his eldest daughter, and because his son saw what he had done, he killed his son as well. When his wife came home, he offered her food saying 'we have meat.' But the wife, suspicious that her children were missing, notified the Ministry of Public Security (the police), which led to the discovery of part of their children's bodies from under the eaves."

Another member of the undercover team reported that, "There was an incident where a man was arrested for digging up the grave of his grandchild, and eating the remains."

Because it is almost impossible for reporters to officially gain access to the cut-off country, apart from state-sanctioned public relations junkets (Google, this month) to marvel at Pyonyang's new buildings -- including, one presumes, the 3,000-room, space-ship-like Ryugyong Hotel, nicknamed the Hotel of Doom, whose construction began in the 80s and is due to finally open this summer -- and extraordinary celebratory displays, it is almost impossible to know what goes on behind this most barricaded of iron curtains. But the Asiapress team estimates that, based on what they saw and heard, tens of thousands died last year as crops like corn and rice failed.

Dr. John Swenson-Wright of the Asian Studies Centre of the University of Cambridge and a senior consulting fellow of the Chatham House think-thank in London told me that the latest bout of aggression from Pyongyang, coupled with a population in perpetual crisis, probably does not, however, herald increased calamity for the communist regime.

"I'm not sure the North faces a fundamentally different situation from that which it confronts routinely. Its willingness to flout international rules has long meant it has been isolated and I think we should be cautious about exaggerating China's willingness to put significant pressure on Pyongyang," he said.

"As for how dangerous it is: any state which has a history of proliferation, has a government that is unrepresentative and which possesses nuclear weapons in an especially volatile security environment can be considered dangerous," he added.

"There is little doubt that a third (nuclear) test would not be a good thing. How much it's a game-changer and substantially adds to regional insecurity is another question."

For those staring out at barren fields and looking hopelessly at empty plates, nuclear tests and rockets lobbed at their southern neighbour are the last things on their minds. If only insecure North Korea came in from its bitter cold, it would find a warm welcome from the world. That is what the people demand.