It has been at least 25 years since I have seen Ichikawa Kon’s “Fires on the Plain,” a sort of Japanese “Platoon” set in 1945 amid the disintegration of the Japanese army in the Philippines. Toward the end of the film, the protagonist is offered “monkey meat” by his comrades. I still remember it. The scene obviously left a big impression.
Cannibalism is a near-universal taboo, and the latest raft of cannibalism stories coming out of North Korea got us to thinking whether there was any research into the circumstances under which humans would resort to this practice. The current crop of stories all appear to stem from a single source: a report published in late January by Rimjin-Gang via The Asia Press which alleged a mini-famine in North and South Hwanghae accompanied by incidents of cannibalism. Normally such reports are greeted with skepticism: they feed comfortably into the familiar “North Korea as living hell” trope, and the specifics, often involving meat sold in markets or children, evoke the lingering psychological discomfort of a Grimm’s fairy tale at its worst.
Rimjin-Gang, whose work we have previously discussed, employs a group of independent journalists reporting surreptitiously within North Korea. Their account of hunger in North and South Hwanghae is plausible, even if their fatality estimates seem high. Despite the fact that food production is relatively high in this region, it generally scores worse than expected on nutritional surveys. Given its proximity to Pyongyang and a number of military installations, food production there appears to be relatively heavily “taxed” or redirected for the consumption key constituencies. As we noted in earlier posts, the region did suffer from serious weather-related problems that adversely affected production, and contributed to eyewitness accounts of hunger in the region. The story is that while production fell, the “tax” did not. Ordinary citizens were left with insufficient food. Given these circumstances, the possibility of hunger-related deaths in these provinces is plausible.
Cannibalism is a different matter, however. It is not without precedence: apart from bleak Japanese films, cannibalism is alleged to have occurred during most if not all of the major famines of the 20th century. The Russian famine of 1921 that followed World War I and the Russian Revolution killed an estimated 5 million people. Due to economic and political disruption in addition to a failure in food transportation infrastructure, millions were left without any hope for finding sufficient food. In the depths of the famine, it was reported that individuals resorted to cannibalism to survive. The Russian famine was followed 11 years later by the Soviet Famine of 1932-33 which affected present-day Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Southwestern Russia. Another 6-7 million people are thought to have died in this period. Forced collectivization by Joseph Stalin is seen as the driver for this famine with some considering the act as an intentional form of genocide. Reports once again include that cannibalism did occur in the depths of the famine. This famine strikes an eerie similarity to the current reports about North and South Hwanghae as the region was considered the “bread basket” of the USSR much like the southern regions of the DPRK, yet experienced politically determined hunger. A final example from the 20th century is the famine associated with China’s Great Leap Forward. Once again, forced collectivization and a failure of distribution mechanisms played a key role. This time the death toll was estimated between 20 and 43 million people. Many historical accounts of the famine include reports of cannibalism.
As we have discussed in numerous posts, there is little consensus regarding the number of excess deaths during the North Korean famine of the 1990s though the central estimates in the range of 600,000 to 1 million out of a pre-famine population of roughly 22 million would make it one of the 20th century’s worst. Reports of cannibalism predictably (?) emerged from this episode as well. In an excellent post this week about the current allegations, Max Fisher cites Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” and Jasper Becker’s “Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine” which both contain harrowing recounts of possible cannibalism. He writes, “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.” He also notes that some of the panic associated with the fear of cannibalism may have been larger than the actual threat, but that the practice is still believed to have occurred.
It would not surprise us if cannibalism occurred during the 1990s famine—that would be consistent with the dismal historical record of other similar cataclysms. Whether it occurred last year is a bigger leap. In the end, does it matter? Does it really matter if, as alleged, a crazed North Korean butchered children and tried to pass them off as pork in the market? Because what seems to be beyond doubt is that chronic severe food insecurity and the debilitations it brings are the fate of far too many North Koreans, cannibalism or not.