A crippling famine struck North Korea between 1994 and 1998. Widespread flooding left most of the farm land unusable. When that was combined with an ever-increasing debt to the Soviet Union that prevented any importing of food, entire cities drifted into a twilight of death.
It’s estimated that close to 3.5 million people died of starvation during that time—more than 10 percent of the population.With what little food they had being confiscated by the military in compliance with the Songun policy, North Koreans turned first to their pets for sustenance, then crickets and tree bark, and finally, children. It became a saying: “Don’t buy meat if you don’t know where it came from.” According to defectors from the time of the famine, people would look for the vagrant children that often begged around train stations, drug them, then take them home and—well, you can fill in the pieces. There’s at least one official account of a man being executed for cannibalism, and even though it’s believed that fear of cannibalism was more prevalent than the cannibalism itself, there are enough firsthand horror stories floating around to lend some legitimacy to these gruesome tales.
Human Feces Fertilizer
North Korea’s geography is mountainous and arid, with long, frigid winters and short, monsoon-filled summers. About 80 percent of the country is located either on the side of a mountain or at the top of one, which means most of the land is terrible for farming. Historically, North Korea has always relied on foreign aid to get the fertilizers it needs: The Soviet Union gave them fertilizer before it collapsed, and until recently, South Korea was sending them 500,000 tons of fertilizer each year to help boost food production. But South Korea stopped sending fertilizer in 2008, and farmers had to turn to a new source: human waste. It went so far as to become a government program. Factories were required to turn over their feces to meet a quota of two tons. Recently, illegal shops have capitalized on the demand for human waste, which is now considered a commodity.
In 1957, when Kim Il Sung was struggling to retain control over North Korea, he launched a massive investigation into the populace of the country. The end result of that investigation was a completely changed social system that separated everybody into three classes: “hostiles,” “wavering,” and “core.” The designations were based not on the person, but on their family history. Those with a history of loyalty to the government were put into the “core” class and given the best opportunities. These are now the politicians and people closely associated with the government. The people in the middle are the “wavering,” or neutral class. There’s nothing really going for or against them, and it’s possible, though unlikely, that they can move up to the core class. Usually though, people move down through the system rather than up. The “hostiles” are people with a family history of such crimes against the state as Christianity and land ownership. They’re the subversives, and according to Kim Il Sung, pose the greatest threat to the government. Because of this, they are denied education, are not allowed to live in or near Pyongyang, and are forced into abject poverty.
The capital city of North Korea, Pyongyang, is something of a self-styled utopia reserved for the population’s elite. Armed guards patrol the borders to keep the lower classes from entering, and most of the residents of Pyongyang live in something approaching luxury—with a given value of “luxury” (maybe they don’t get enough food, but they at least get more than everyone else in the country). Yet even the three million upper-class citizens aren’t given electricity for more than an hour or two a day. Sometimes, especially in winter, the power goes out completely while millions of people try to battle the frigid temperatures that can get below -17.8 C (0 F). The majority of the homes outside Pyongyang don’t even have electricity to begin with. The nighttime satellite image above really drives the point home—to the north and south are China and South Korea respectively, and the outlined dark patch in between is North Korea.
The North Korean economy is, in all measurable aspects, completely failing. Exports are virtually nonexistent due to their reluctance to interact with foreign markets, as well as the fact that they struggle to feed everyone living within their own borders. The current population of North Korea is about 25 million, and the average GDP per person is about $500 (for comparison, in the US it hovers around $50,000). To supplement their ailing economy and bring in more money, North Korea has been known to turn to international crime. One of these crimes is global insurance fraud: They’ve conned Western insurance companies out of hundreds of millions of dollars. Brought to light in 2009, it turns out that the North Korean government had been taking out huge insurance policies on property and equipment, then claiming that it had been destroyed. In 2005, several of the world’s largest insurance companies, including Lloyd’s of London, took North Korea to court over an alleged helicopter crash with a $58 million insurance policy. When North Korea’s state-run courts “reviewed” the case, they announced that it was a legitimate claim. The insurance companies settled because their contract was subject to North Korean law, which is a bit like playing “I win” with a toddler.