“A million maybe two million died – nobody knows”

This from BBC Radio 5 live this morning; a reminder of the North Korean famine that is thought to have wiped anything from 800,000 to 3.5m people between 1995 and 2002.

This from Wikipedia

 In 1998, US Congressional staffers who visited the country reported that: “Reliable sources estimate that of North Korea’s 23 million people, between 300,000-800,000 people have died each year (peaking in 1997) as a result of the food shortages.” They went on to say: “Other estimates of the death toll by exile groups are much higher.”These higher estimates are sometimes considered problematic as they are based on the experience of North Koreans in the province of North Hamgyŏng. The province was one of the most devastated due to its urban environment and lack of agricultural production. Additionally, the original study warned not to extrapolate the death toll of the famine to the whole of North Korea. The same source goes on to say “The most reliable evaluation, carried out in a doctoral thesis at the University of Warwick by South Korean economist Suk Lee, shows that up to 660,000 people died from starvation and malnutrition-related diseases.” It then goes on to say: “However, the truth is that nobody — including the government — probably knows the real figure.”[

And again

In 2011, during a visit to North Korea, US ex-president Jimmy Carter reported that one third of children there were malnourished and stunted in their growth because of lack of food. He also said that the North Korean state had reduced daily food intake from 1,400 calories to 700 calories in 2011(by comparison, a normal food intake for a healthy European is 2,000-2,500 calories per day). Some scholars believe that North Korea is purposefully exaggerating the food shortage, aiming to receive additional food supplies for its planned 2012 mass celebration by means of foreign aid.

Escaped North Koreans report that starvation has returned to the nation.A study by South Korean anthropologists of North Korean children who had defected to China found that 18-year-old males were 5 inches shorter than South Koreans their age. Roughly 45 per cent of North Korean children under the age of five are stunted from malnutrition. Most people eat meat only on public holidays, namely Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s birthdays.

It is in this context that we should view the impressive ceremony surrounding  the late Dictator’s death. This the price of ~North Korean self-determination.

I am troubled that I ignored this great catastrophe as it unfolded and that it has taken recent events for me to focus both on historical and current calamity. The scale of suffering cannot be discounted by use of the remoteness of the country nor the unfamiliarity with the culture. The agony of starvation is no greater in Britain than it is in Africa than it is in North Korea.

Philosophers have struggled with this kind of relativism and failed to find absolute answers. Is it racist that we demote genocide in Cambodia or implied genocide in North Korea below the news of David Beckham’s metatarsal?

I am also troubled that we claim to have no means of knowing. If we know that North Korea is investing in nuclear weapons, we must have sight of the nuclear plants and the infrastructure being built to launch the rockets. It follows that we must have sight of the interior of North Korea where this famine is taking place. This scale of de-population is more than a Malthusian statistic, it involves the disposal of bodies , the emptying of villages and a change in the way life is lived.

We know more of the Black Death, over 700 years gone than we know of the fate of our fellow mortals who have been dying these past twenty years.

Yet, and you are right to ask the “question what am I doing about it?”. ….”Writing a few words that will be read by a few people”.

In an age where we feel we have mastered nature in many ways, we stand powerless to comprehend or intervene – our response is to mouth the statistic and move on.

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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