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Posted by on Nov 1, 2009 in Korean Culture, Korean Food | 7 comments

Recollections of NK’s famine

Recollections of NK’s famine

Blogger Grace Meng posted a blog on Oct. 30 2009 about two different articles she read recently contrasting the abundance of food in South Korea as evidenced by the annual ritual of kimjang versus the misery and starvation in North Korea, which reached its zenith in the mid to late 90’s when an estimated 2 million North Koreans died of starvation.

Barbara Demick in the New Yorker is writing less about Korean food than the lack of it, as she describes the life of Song Hee-Suk, a North Korean refugee now living in South Korea, and how she tried and failed to keep her family fed during the famines. …The story’s written sparely, which makes it all the more heartbreaking: “Once, while visiting a relative for lunch, Mrs. Song was served a porridge made of bean stalks and corncobs. As hungry as she was, she couldn’t swallow it. The bitter, dry stalks stuck in her throat like the twigs of a bird’s nest.”

Here is my public response to Ms. Meng’s article.

Thanks for posting the info about the article on the suffering of North Korea’s famine in the mid-90’s. I was living in Chuncheon, South Korea, at the time. Chuncheon is less than 50 miles south of the DMZ, uncomfortably close for some people. Many in Chuncheon remember that the North Koreans leveled the town more than once during the Korean war.

I went to a department store food court one day to grab a slice of pizza for lunch. I made my choice and thought the young man behind the counter would simply give me the slice I had chosen. Instead he threw the sitting pizza away and told me I had to wait for the fresh pizza to finish baking. He told me it’s due to health dept. regulations, etc.

At that point, the stark disparity between North and South hit me right in the face and I started arguing with the guy at the pizza counter demanding he give me the old slice. It was an argument I didn’t win that day. However, I never forgot the fact that South Koreans have the luxury of health dept regulations to protect them and forcing restaurants to throw away decent (even if not perfect food) while in the North, people were trying to eat corn cobs and tree bark.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out, but you misspelled my name 🙂 I do think there's something about having lived in South Korea that makes the situation in North Korea even more appalling.

  2. I can change that…that's the good thing about blogging! LOL!

  3. Interesting story. I didn't know much about the famine in North Korea in the 90s. Now I do. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for sharing your encounter in the department store and about the famine in North Korea in the 90s. Is North Korea better by now tammy ??? Sorry to ask cause i din read much on that .

  5. Moving story. I feel that way in the US a lot, too. I was at a Vietnamese restaurant the other day, and the people at the table next to me were doing the thing where they say, "I want…" or "give me…" without adding "please" and "thank you." I cringed the whole time. Privileged societies instill in folks that food is their God-given right, and it isn&#39

  6. Well, people in NK aren't eating tree bark anymore but they are still dependent on food handouts. That generation of young people who survived the famine will have permanent health problems as a result, such as stunted growth, developmental challenges, etc.

  7. Yeah Tamar, I get what you mean! Not just Korea but anywhere could happened the same thing too. But what to do rules are rules!

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