Max Fisher: The Cannibals of North Korea

tags: WaPo, North Korea, famine



Max Fisher is the Post's foreign affairs blogger.

There were times and places in North Korea in the mid-1990s, as a great famine wiped out perhaps 10 percent of the population, that children feared to sleep in the open. Some of them had wandered in from the countryside to places like Chongjin, an industrial town on the coast, where they lived on streets and in railroad stations. 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 the reporter Barbara Demick for her book, “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” Fear of cannibalism, like the famine supposedly driving it, spread. People avoided the meat in streetside 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....



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