"Rice Urn" by Yi Ka-yeon

  • onFebruary 17, 2015
  • Vol.26 Winter 2014
  • byYi Ga-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 even cry.

It was when my mother came to the funeral with two kilos of rice she had managed to borrow that I started to cry. It hurt all the more because I thought that if Mother had come with the rice when my friend was alive, she could have saved her life. After the funeral, we talked with my friend’s family and learned how she passed away. She died clutching a ssaldok, a large earthenware jar used for storing rice. How hungry she must have been, to die hugging that big jar! This is a memory I cannot put out of my mind. I will remember my friend’s ssaldok forever.

Years have passed since my friend died, but countless people continue to starve in North Korea. Every so often I would shed a tear thinking of her, when I was eating delicious rice made in my Cuckoo-brand rice cooker. Then one day I thought of writing my friend’s story as a poem, as a tribute to her soul. I was an ordinary woman who was working in a factory in Haeju, South Hwanghae Province, straight out of high school. I had never learned to write poetry nor had I ever written anything in North Korea.

As for my poem, “Rice Urn,” it would be more accurate to say that it was written by my friend’s voice guiding me from beyond the grave. Every day in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, more girls are ending up like my next door friend. But not many people know this. Even worse, those who do know don’t care. They speak of human rights, but they don’t want to listen, they don’t want to see. I will continue to write poems that bring attention to the human rights crisis in North Korea. And in my next poem they will be your next door neighbors. 


by Lee Ka-yeon


* picture information:
Look At Us! 1 / Sunmu / oil on canvas / 2010 60 x 72 cm