There has only been one famine in the last twenty years in a country with a temperate climate that is similar to the northern part of the United States. That country was North Korea. Many of the observations offered below are taken from the book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick, a very gifted reporter.
Most of us think of North Korea as a poor, underdeveloped country controlled by a dictator that lags far behind its South Korean neighbor economically. However, until about 1980, North Korea had a higher GDP than South Korea. It has a university and college system that produced scientists capable of developing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons and a national literacy rate of over 90 percent.
North Korea has more natural resources than South Korea but much less arable land. Even in good years, it produces less food than its people need. Prior to 1990, the balance of food had been provided by the Soviet Union and China. North Korea has always had cash flow problems and it was chronically bad about repaying the Soviets and the Chinese. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russians choose not to continue to provide support at historic levels. After poor harvests in the mid-1990s, the North Korean government was forced to reduce the food ration that its people relied on. This amounted to 700-900 calories per person per day supplied by the government. This was supplemented by what could be grown in home gardens or purchased elsewhere.
Some regions were given less food than others and some eventually got nothing from the government. According to a report by North Korea’s Public Security Ministry, the North estimates its losses from 2.5 million to 3 million people from 1995 to March 1998. The famine is fairly well documented and the following summarizes what could happen in the temperate regions of the world if the food distribution system breaks down. Keep in mind that the North Korean government maintained extremely tight control over travel and people did not have the option to move to another area. City dwellers suffered more than people in the villages and country. The government allowed individual gardens but people in the urban areas had less room to grow food during the summer months that could sustain them during through the harsh winter.
The average daily ration per person in the hardest hit areas was about 600 calories or about one-fourth of what the body needs to function and maintain itself. Most people didn’t starve to death; malnutrition impaired the body’s ability to fight infection and normally curable diseases proved fatal. There was a natural progression that saw disease attack the most vulnerable, which were the children under five. Next were the aged; those over 70 followed by the 60-year olds and the 50-somethings. Death then stalked the people in the prime of life. Men, because they had less body fat, went next. The strong and athletic were especially vulnerable because their metabolisms burned more calories. Although the hospitals continued to operate, sometimes the families were too weak to take the critically ill to be treated. Even if hospitalized and given antibiotics, the body would be too weak to metabolize the drugs. Fluctuations in body chemistry would trigger strokes and heart attacks.
Parents and grandparents would deny themselves food in order to keep their children alive. Eventually, the children were orphaned and joined the many groups of youngsters that tried to survive via a migratory, snatch and gulp existence. Younger children in those groups rarely survived more than a couple of months. People would walk past a dying child on the street without any thought of giving aid.
Part of the challenge of keeping children alive is their inability to digest strange foods. North Korean families were forced to incorporate grass, corn husks and cobs, and the inner bark of pine trees into their diets during the latter months of winter and in the spring. Adults could gain some nourishment but small children would become painfully constipated. Of course, infants had to rely on their mothers’ milk for nourishment and when the mother could not produce adequate supplies, the babies died. As a result of growing up during this period, young North Koreans are, on average, five inches shorter that their South Korean counterparts. The North Korean military has had to lower its minimum height for draftees to five foot from five foot three inches.
The government allowed open air markets during the years of the food shortage. Food from China, NGOs, and the UN was available in the markets if you had money. If an average North Korean had relatives in Japan or China or a family member was working in another country, then they often had money that could be used to buy food in the markets. If they had no money, then they scavenged. Because there was inadequate electricity or gas to run the factories, people were free to spend their entire day looking for food. Wake up – search for breakfast, sleep during mid-day, and start the search for the evening meal.
There was some theft of food by North Koreans but those who were caught could expect to be incarcerated or executed. The exception was the migratory orphans who usually got some leniency from the authorities.
We need 500 calories per day, on average, to survive. Eating only food foraged in a temperate forest; you could expect to live no more than three months. People tried to cope by grinding acorns into a paste that could be digested easily. They picked kernels of corn out of the manure of farm animals. Yes, there were still farm animals. City dwellers, usually the women with more fat reserves and, hence, more energy, would scavenge for food near government orchards and corn fields. Eventually, they moved their scavenging higher into the mountains until they became too weak to make the daily trip.
Small animals were also exploited to some extent. The North Korean people cannot own weapons so that limited the ability to hunt. The frog population was decimated by people looking for protein. Unlike the Mediterranean people who have a strong tradition of capturing or shooting both song and game birds as they migrate from Africa to Northern Europe, the Koreans apparently do not have wild birds as a part of their culinary tradition. There were some reports of bird trapping but the people did not have equipment to take advantage of the migrating bird population.
There are lessons in the North Korean famine that can be applied to our survival preparedness. One is that, ultimately, it will often be the women who have the burden to feed the family because they will likely have more energy than the average male. Another is that children are the weakest link in the family chain. Kids can be very particular about what they eat and could fall victim to a fatal cold or flu simply because something doesn’t taste good or causes discomfit when they eat. The spring months will be the leanest time of all. Supplies laid up for the winter are gone and the gardens are just planted. Birds migrate in the spring and fall and that would be the time to hunt. Netting birds will probably require less energy than hunting with a weapon.
When the body is under great stress, what it craves changes from normal times. Wilderness hikers and mountain climbers often relate how, after three or four days, candy loses its appeal and items that are salty and crunchy like crackers often become the food of choice. The cook who can process wild plants and make them palatable will have a better chance of keeping the young ones alive when most of the calories are coming from the forest or prairies. Realistically, the average person can expect to get less than 500 calories a day from nature and should plan on spending most of the day looking for food.