News coverage on North Korea deals almost exclusively with the regime’s growing nuclear capabilities and with other countries’ attempts to stop them, but what we don’t often hear about is the widespread suffering among the people who live in North Korea.
A recent interview with defector Lee Wi-ryeok revealed that orphans ate lice and corn extracted from cow dung during a famine in the late 1900’s that killed over 1 million people.
“If a cow excreted kernels of corn in the form of diarrhea, we would rinse them out and eat those,” said Lee, who grew up in an orphanage in North Korea. “After I came to South Korea, I was amazed to learn tuberculosis is a disease that can be treated. The most serious illness you can get is probably tuberculosis. If you get tuberculosis, there is no answer. You just die if you get sick at the orphanage.”
Another North Korean defector, known as “Oh,” is currently under a surgeon’s care in South Korea. Oh is suffering from five bullet wounds sustained during his escape, when North Korean soldiers violated the armistice agreement by shooting at him as he raced through the DMZ.
Doctors were shocked when they found out that Oh suffered from hepatitis B, tuberculosis, and a severe case of intestinal worms.
“In my 20 years as a surgeon, I have only seen something like this in a medical textbook,” said surgeon Lee Cook-Jong, referring to the intestinal worms.
Parasite expert Choi Min-ho, who estimates that up to 50% of North Koreans suffer from parasites, believes the problem is a result of poor sanitary conditions and the practice of using human fertilizer on crops. “For those who can eat well and are healthy, parasitic infections might not be a big deal,” says Choi. “But for those malnourished, this can be much more critical as parasites steal much-needed nutrition.”
The UN estimates that over 10 million North Koreans are undernourished.
The situation isn’t much better in the military.
Kang Ri Hyuk is a former North Korean army officer who defected to South Korea about four years ago. “Everyone was hungry…The UN is sending rice and fertilizer and it all goes to the ranking officials under Kim Jong-un,” he said.
The situation is even worse for female soldiers, who are constantly in danger of being raped by their superiors.
“The company commander would stay in his room at the unit after hours and rape the female soldiers under his command. This would happen over and over without an end,” said Lee So Yeon, who volunteered for the army when she was 17. Her decision was based on a sense of patriotism and a desire for regular meals.
Lee So Yeon says the women had slightly easier physical training than the men but were also expected to do the cooking and cleaning – chores that men were exempt from.
“After six months to a year of service, we wouldn’t menstruate anymore because of malnutrition and the stressful environment,” she added, explaining this was in some cases preferable due to the lack of feminine hygiene products.
Oh and Lee are among an estimated 880 individuals to defect from North Korea so far this year.