"Rice Urn" by Yi Ka-yeon

Rice Urn


                                    by Lee Ka-Yeon

                                    translated by Jack Jung


Yeon-hee’s family next door

all starved to death.


Their names were

buried in rice urns.


On earth, they starved to death.

It worried us they may starve again.


We buried them in rice urns.




Countless North Koreans died in the “Arduous March” of the mid-1990s, truly a death march if there ever was one. It is said that over three million people starved to death. I saw people dying every day in my hometown, so on a national scale it cannot be said that this number has been exaggerated. My poetry collection, Missing Dinnertime, is my attempt to work through this trauma I experienced in my hometown. I believe that by doing so, I am also doing my duty in telling the world about the atrocious conditions of life in North Korea.

     My hometown in Hwanghae Province is known as the breadbasket of North Korea. When I say that people were starving to death even in this area, you can imagine what it must have been like in the rest of the North. The entire nation was gripped in the vice of starvation, and more and more people were dying in my hometown every day. I had a friend who was three years older than me, the girl next door who was my playmate from childhood. She grew thinner and thinner, and the day I heard that she had been taken, I was too crushed to e...