Children in North Korea Ate Lice and Corn Extracted From Cow Dung

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiles as children eat during his visit to the Pyongyang Orphanage on International Children's Day in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang June 2, 2014. Reuters

A wretched practice has been revealed to the South Korean government by defectors from the North: Orphaned children in ate corn extracted from cow dung and lice in order to stay alive.

Defector Lee Wi-ryeok told Daily NK on Wednesday that the practice occurred during the North Korea's famine, when conditions in orphanages were poorer than other parts of the country. "If a cow excreted kernels of corn in the form of diarrhea, we would rinse them out and eat those," said Lee, who lived at a North Korea orphanage in the late 1990s, until he was a teenager.

Children also ate lice because the parasites have blood and they believed it would be a waste not to eat them. "When you bite into lice they would burst with blood," Lee said.

The orphans had to survive inhumane treatment. Administrators made bonfires to disinfect the children from mites and would hit them with sticks if they tried to escape. Many children suffered burns.

If a child contracted a disease, it could be the end of his or her life, because few if any cures were available. "After I came to South Korea, I was amazed to learn tuberculosis is a disease that can be treated," Lee said.

North Korea defector: Children ate lice to stay full

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The famine in North Korea, which lasted from 1994 to 1998 and killed hundreds of thousands of people, occurred after the loss of Soviet support led food production to plummet. It was worsened by floods and droughts.

North Korea has been a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a human rights treaty, since 1990, before the famine began. The country's leader Kim Jong Un has denied human rights abuses

The quality of life in North Korea has improved since the famine but the country remains poor and hungry. More than 10 million North Koreans are undernourished, according to a report released by the United Nations in March.

The discontent among North Koreans is reflected in the number of defectors. Since the last year of the famine, in 1998, more than 31,000 people have successfully crossed the border to South Korea, according to the Ministry of Unification in Seoul. The number of defectors this year—as Kim Jong Un threatens the U.S. with a nuclear attack—is about 880, down from the previous year, according to the Yonhap News Agency, which attributes the decrease the North Korea's tightened surveillance.

"Most of (the) people escape due to poverty, but we have to pay attention that in recent days those who have stable life in North Korea even escape," South Korean lawmaker Park Byeong-seug told Yonhap. "Some even defect for their children's education."