The fields of North Hwanghae province in southwestern North Korea looked lush and green when I was there in July. One of the North Korean minders helpfully explained why the farmers there had it pretty good. They divided their crops between the state and themselves. The more they grew, the more they got to eat.
And you couldn’t miss the corn growing around the houses, right up to the walls and windows. Those were “private plots” – evidence that North Korea wasn’t so rigidly communist after all.
Of course, nobody in his or her right mind would go away thinking North Korea was doing all that well. Still, a glance from the tour bus did seem persuasive. Some people believed North Korea might really be doing OK.
One could say we were shown the breadbasket of North Korea. The country, after all, is not a desert. They’ve got to grow rice somewhere – though not nearly enough to feed everybody.
Sceptical though I try to be when presented with pretty visions of North Korea, I must say I was surprised to read recently that North Hwanghae and neighbouring South Hwanghae province were suffering from famine.
Who would have believed we were in the midst of scenes of starvation? How were we to guess while visiting a folklore museum and then a building where they showed the horrors of US forces as they invaded the North following the marine landing at Incheon in September 1950?
The gruesome displays in the museum in the North Hwanghae capital of Sariwon are not possible to verify. Far more credible, from what contacts inside North Korea are telling websites in Japan and South Korea, is that thousands of North Koreans in the Hwanghae provinces have died of starvation. One source, Asia Press, based in Osaka, has put out a lengthy treatise that includes rumours of cannibalism.
Cannibalism in North Korea is not a new story. Years ago, when interviewing defectors who had crossed the Tumen River into China, I heard more than one report of people killing others for food. Such reports were credible considering the hardscrabble poverty of northeastern North Korea, historically the hungriest region and the greatest source of defectors.
But why should there be famine in the seemingly prosperous southwest? The answer, it seems, is that the North Korean leadership drained those provinces of food to feed the military establishment and, more particularly, the ruling elite.
Last year was, after all, the year in which the North honoured the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung with a failed rocket test before succeeding finally in another attempt at putting a satellite into orbit. The climax of the show came last week, when Pyongyang conducted its third, and biggest, underground nuclear test.
Rüdiger Frank, a German economist with extensive experience in North Korea, adds credibility to what might seem like an isolated report. Frank writes that he had heard from the World Food Programme that “Hwanghae-do is indeed considered to be one of the regions most severely threatened by famine”.
Thus, Frank goes on: “As it is the breadbasket, the quota to be delivered to the central government is extraordinarily high.” On the basis of a visit in April, he concludes that “there is a big food problem in that area”.
The real lesson of famine in the Hwanghae provinces is the connection between the sacrifices forced on those people and the success of the nuclear and missile tests. We have always assumed that North Koreans paid a high price for such programmes. The reports from Hwanghae lend specificity to the general understanding of North Korea suffering for the sake of its nukes. If people are forced to go hungry, nowhere are North Koreans immune other than in the centres of military and dynastic power.
Journalist Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea