In the early 1990s famine took hold in North Korea. The inefficient collective farms had never been able to feed the population and changing conditions caused China and Russia to cut back on the aid they had been supplying the regime. North Korea is a tightly controlled society and though no official figures are available (the regime ordered hospitals and physicians not to record starvation as a cause of death), it is estimated that up to a tenth of the population perished. That would amount to somewhere between 600,000 and 2.5 million people.
It has been said that people raised in Communist countries cannot fend for themselves, because they expect the government to take care of them. This was not true of many of the victims of the North Korean famine. When the public-distribution system was cut off, people tapped their deepest wells of creativity to feed themselves. They devised traps out of buckets and string to catch small animals in fields, and draped nets over their balconies to snare sparrows. They educated themselves in the nutritive properties of plants.
Women exchanged recipe tips: When making cornmeal, don’t throw out the husks, cob, leaves, and stem of the corn—throw everything into the grinder. Even if it isn’t nutritious, it is filling. Boil noodles for at least an hour to make them appear bigger. Add a few leaves of grass to soup to make it look as if it contained vegetables. Women would strip the sweet inner bark of pine trees to grind into a fine powder that could be used in place of flour.
North Koreans picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals. Shipyard workers developed a technique by which they scraped the bottoms of the cargo holds where food had been stored, then spread the foul-smelling gunk on the roof to dry so that they could collect from it tiny grains of uncooked rice and other edibles.
The gathering and production of food was the focus of all enterprise. You woke up early to find your breakfast, and as soon as it was finished you thought about what to find for dinner. You slept during lunchtime because you were exhausted.
For more information read “The Good Cook: A battle against famine in North Korea” by Barbara Demick in The New Yorker (November 2, 2009) pp. 58-64.
You can find a audio-slide overview of Demick’s article here.