Growing up in North Korea, Hyok Kang was surrounded by desperate people who ate grass and bark before they died. Yet pervasive propaganda made them feel lucky to be there.
The first time I ate chocolate was when I was five years old. My grandfather had relatives in Japan who were given exceptional permission to visit us. They came like extraterrestrials with their arms full of presents and food. I remember waving tins of condensed milk and chocolate bars under my friends’ noses. I was a horrid little boy. It was 1990 and I didn’t yet know what famine was. I wouldn’t taste chocolate again until we escaped to China when I was 13.
In 1994, shortly before the death of Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader, the state food distribution system began to break down. Eventually, there was no more rice, no more potatoes. We moved on to vile food substitutes. Weeds, of whatever kind, were boiled up and swallowed in the form of soup. We picked these inedible leaves on the edges of the fields or the banks of the river. The soup was so bitter that we could barely keep it down.
Our neighbours collected grass and tree bark — usually pine, or various shrubs. They grated the bark and boiled it up before eating it. And much good it did them: their faces swelled from day to day until they finally perished.
Not only food was scarce. Our teachers gave each of us collection quotas: maize leaves (for paper mills), copper and other metals — and, during the winter, dung for fertiliser. We had to take six whole carts of faecal matter to the school, and not any old excrement: it had to be human. As it was frozen — the temperature fell to -20C or -30C — we used a pick or a hatchet to hack it from the back of the rudimentary outdoor toilets by each dwelling. In extremis, dog poo was tolerated as well.
My mother started selling buns and pancakes in the market. She was shattered by the sight of dozens of ragged urchins (some of them little more than toddlers) avidly watching the customers as they ate their pancakes just in case they accidentally dropped some. Then they would dart forwards to pick up scraps and stuff them into their mouths. Some adults, racked with hunger, beat the children and stole from them.
International food aid began to arrive in Onsong, our city, near the border with China. For a while the children started to get their strength back. But then the cadres reduced the rations. First the children had to make do with soup, then with nothing. Their faces were terribly thin, their cheeks were hollow and their eyes bulged with hunger.
The United Nations must have heard that the aid was not being distributed, because an inspection was organised. The party cadres, who had been alerted in advance, had rice delivered to the schools from state storehouses, which were apparently far from empty. The children were told to tell the UN inspectors that this diet was perfectly normal. On the day of the visit there were all kinds of dishes on the menu: noodles, maize soufflé. Once the UN team set off again, the cadres took back everything, including all the uneaten food from the tables where the children were still sitting.
Hunger engulfed my little universe. The poorest children lived on nothing but grass, and during class their stomachs rumbled. After a few weeks their faces began to swell, making them look well nourished. Then their faces went on growing until they looked as though they had been inflated. Their cheeks were so puffy that they couldn’t see the blackboard. Some of them were covered with impetigo and flaking skin.
My classmates started dying during the summer of 1996. One girl spent her days by her dying brother’s bedside, going short herself so that he would have more to eat. She died before he did.
As time passed there were fewer and fewer of us sitting at the school desks. Sometimes there were only about 10 in a class of 35. The teachers themselves no longer had enough energy to take their classes. They sat shapelessly in their chairs, cane in hand, while we repeated by heart lessons we had already learnt about the childhoods of Kim Il-sung and his son and successor Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader.
The famine encouraged the most selfish kinds of behaviour. My grandmother sold soya dishes and soups at home, a little trade that helped her to survive. I remember one father who regularly came to my grandmother’s house in secret to eat his fill far from the eyes of his family. Many parents left their homes in search of food, and most didn’t come back.
People generally died at night, and every morning we counted five or six deaths in our neighbourhood. Most of them were ordinary people, because neither party cadres nor policemen nor high-ranking military officers suffered as a result of the famine. My father calculated that the district where we lived had shrunk from 4,000 to 2,000 inhabitants.
There were empty houses everywhere. We felt as though we were living in a ghost town. Nonetheless, with my boy’s eyes, I found it all relatively normal. It was all I had ever known, and I thought that things abroad must be pretty much the same, or worse, as our leaders told us, assuring us that North Korea was “paradise” compared with other states. My belief in Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il remained unshakeable.
The party cadres blamed “natural disasters”, the US and South Korea for the shortages. My friends and I caught frogs and cooked them skewered on bicycle spokes. We also ate grasshoppers, which are delicious fried, as are dragonflies. Grilled, the flesh of fat dragonflies tastes a bit like pork; but you can eat them raw, once the head and wings have been removed. Sparrows and quails ended up in the pot. We caught them with nets set in wooden frames. Other birds, like crows, we fried on a brazier.
The railway station was a hideout for abandoned children. The shortage of petrol and electricity had reduced the daily rail service to one departure every two weeks. So the station was filled with people waiting for trains that never came. Destitute crowds slept there night and day. Skeletal children wandered through the waiting room. Some of them were very young: I remember kids of one or two who couldn’t even stand upright. They crawled on all fours on the filthy floor, picking up whatever they could with their black fingers.
People gathered for a few minutes around the body of a child who had just died, but lost interest almost immediately. A friend of my father’s was in a unit responsible for their collection and burial. He told us he never rushed to pick up dead children. He waited until at least three had died before collecting their bodies because that way he only had to dig a single grave. He dug rather shallow graves so as not to tire himself, and then laid the little skeletons in the holes, sometimes without so much as a shroud.
By 1997 my school had ceased to function. I ended up joining the gangs of children who stole from the market stalls. I would distract a well-padded person’s attention and then my gang of five or six would jump on them and grab their money. The misfortune of others, even your own family, leaves you completely indifferent when you have nothing in your belly. You rob ruthlessly; you would even kill.
My father worked in the local lignite mine. In the autumn of 1997 he asked the cadres for a change of employment. This was a legitimate request, because he had worked in the mine for more than 15 years, and the labour had been very hard. The cadres refused. Exasperated, my father hurled an ashtray through a window, and started insulting them. He ended up breaking all of the cadres’ office windows, calling them fat pigs.
He was summoned to the penal labour colony in Onsong the following week for “re-education”, but instead he escaped to China. After three months, and after saving some money, he came back to get me and my mother. But he was caught, laden with sausages and other foodstuffs, by border guards who wolfed down the food in front of him and then beat him up. Within days he was in an overcrowded cell in Onsong prison.
Eventually, after contracting typhus from infected lice, my father was granted provisional release on condition that he would go back to prison if he recovered from the illness. Depressed, he hit the bottle and one evening he suddenly started shouting at the top of his voice: “Kim Jong-il, son of a bitch . . . bastard, swine!” My mother, in a panic, jammed both hands over his mouth. Our house was under constant surveillance from neighbourhood informers, and this sort of outburst could get us all shot.
He made up his mind to smuggle us to China. For more than a month he tried everything he could think of to persuade us, but my mother wasn’t convinced. “In spite of the shortages,” she insisted, “North Korea is without a doubt one of the most prosperous countries in the world!” I told him I would rather be a beggar in North Korea than follow him to China. I spouted phrases that I had learnt at school: “Let us safeguard socialism . . . I will fight to the death to protect socialism and the Great Leader Kim Il-sung!” My father went on insulting Kim Jong-il in the worst possible terms. My mother finally yielded. In turn she tried to persuade me, the confused 13-year-old. She said we would spend a year in China, no more, and we would earn money and come back to North Korea.
Reluctantly, I agreed. We made our getaway from home on March 19, 1998, at 4am, because that was the time when my father was under the least amount of surveillance. We had only the clothes on our backs, because even the smallest bundle of clothing would have looked suspicious. Needless to say, we did not return after a year — nor have we ever.
This is an excerpt of Hyok Kang's book, This Is Paradise!
Click Here to support Frontpagemag.com.