Tuesday, July 21, 2009


There’s some debate (and of course a huge number of web postings) about whether or not there’s food in heaven. The general consensus is no, that heaven will be a place of spiritual rather than bodily pleasures, thereby avoiding heavenly toilet and sewage issues.

The blessed Christopher Hitchens says that North Korea currently resembles a Christian heaven; a place without irony, art or privacy, with no respect for individuals, and where you’re required to offer perpetual thanks to the great leader; Kim Jong-Il, in the case of Korea.

Hitchens might also add that North Korea is a place without food, at least for a large portion of the population, although Kim himself, is quite the foodie and certainly gets all he can eat, and more.

His apologists, and strangely enough there are one or two, insist that he’s a gourmet rather than a gourmand. Yes, yes, they say, he flies in lobster and French cheeses, and camel’s feet and blue-shark liver, and sometimes send couriers on international food shopping trips, but once the food is in front of him he eats very sparingly, as if he’s working his way through an endless tasting menu.

There have been two “cook and tell” exposés of Kim’s eating habits; a series of articles by Ermanno Furlanis titled "I Made Pizza for Kim Jong Il," and another by a sushi chef who worked for the man between 1988 and 2001. Now I can’t see anything very wrong about having a personal pizza or sushi chef, but other parts of the story are way more excessive; such as personally importing $560,000 of Hennessey cognac each year.

Then there’s an institute in Pyongyang devoted simply to extending the life of Kim Jong-Il. Among the large staff are 200 people who work solely on his diet; which I would have thought might be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.

But strangest of all, he also has a staff of women who’s job it is to inspect the rice that comes into Kim’s kitchen to make sure that every grain is perfect and resembles every other grain. Grains of the wrong shape or size aren’t allowed to come into his presence. Now that does seem nuts. As for the women, well no doubt it’s a strange job, and definitely a boring one, but in North Korea it’s probably a job worth having. With a bit of luck, and possibly some subterfuge, at least the women may get to eat some misshapen rice. In North Korea this places them among the lucky ones.

Back in 1998 former agriculture diplomat Kim Dong-Su defected to South Korea and estimated that 2.8 million people had died of starvation in the three year famine immediately before then. It’s thought that figure is exaggerated but even if it’s triple the actual figure that’s still an awful lot of people starving to death as a result of the actions of their own government. The UN World Food Program believes that a large part of the population has been undernourished for 15 to 20 years.

All of which makes you think of Amartya Sen, the Novel Prize-winning Indian economist; the man who famously asserted, “In the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in an independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.”

Sen is an Indian, and he observes that the last famine in his country was in Bengal in 1943, five years before India gained independence from Britain: and there has been none since, although there have been a couple of “near misses.”

Meanwhile the folk at the US Department of Agricuture have declared that 13 million American families, made up of 38 million individuals, are “food insecure,” meaning that they worry at times about being able to buy the food they want. This seems to be so broad a deifinition as to be almost meaningless. And, unlike Kim Jung-Il, I am clearly food insecure. I just don’t where my next camel’s foot or blue-shark liver is coming from.