A Brief Note on the History of Korean Cannibalism

In depth

Between August 2011 and July of this year, Korea Customs Service apprehended 117 illicit shipments of human flesh capsules to South Korea. The quantity amounted to 27,852 capsules in 2013 alone.

Human flesh capsules are reportedly made in China from aborted fetuses that are dried and pulverized into powder. They have been linked in popular discourse to a wide range of beneficial effects including better skin, improved sexual function, and a higher level of energy.

North Koreans have also been accused of engaging in cannibalism but out of hunger. In South Korea the identity of those who buy human flesh capsules largely remains a mystery, allegations that they are being bought and sold by Koreans of Chinese descent and Chinese tourists notwithstanding.

But why some here may crave the capsules can be placed in a context.

Cannibalism has a long history on the peninsula. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) the state sanctioned consumption of human parts if the provider intended to express filial piety. Children could, voluntarily or under family pressure, feed their own blood or flesh to ailing parents, and official records note that recipients miraculously rose from their deathbed.

Source: Tongguk sin sok Samgang haengsil to (1617)
A child cuts her finger off to feed an ailing parent. Source: Tongguk sin sok Samgang haengsil to (1617)

A darker, more sinister form of cannibalism also existed: forcible procurement of human organs. In the sixteenth century King Seonjo decreed that those who kill people by mutilating the stomach be arrested and brought to justice. He was referring to criminals in the countryside who abducted people in order to remove livers and gallbladders because of those organs’ efficacy in curing leprosy. The problem was serious enough that woodcutters could no longer go into the mountains, too frightened from seeing all the victims littering the forests.

During the same century, beggars in the vicinity of the capital’s clinics were disappearing one by one, to the point that streets became quiet from their absence. The cause lay with one court physician who had remarked that a human gallbladder could heal venereal diseases. His prescription led to a city-wide wave of murders, whose chief victims were the indigents loitering in the shadow of the clinics. When the supply of beggars dried up, children were next to be kidnapped and killed.

What these two types of cannibalism shared was the belief in the power of human body parts to heal. A gallbladder was believed to cure leprosy, and children’s blood and meat could awaken dying parents. The authorities’ objection to cannibalism, if there was any, was over violence committed against unwitting individuals whose organs and meat were harvested, and violence against society whose moral values were threatened by the unapproved procurement and consumption of human parts.

But the conviction in the medicinal power of the human body was never challenged.

In 1910 the Joseon Dynasty collapsed and Korea was annexed by Japan as a colony. Cannibalism, however, persisted. A police manual dated to 1926 lists under common superstitions the practices of cannibalism as a cure for leprosy and of cutting one’s finger off and feeding blood to a dead person as a way of reversing death. Korean reformers also weighed in with condemnations of lepers who attacked passers-by and fed on the oozing blood and unknown persons who exhumed bodies of dead infants, which were believed to be a universal cure.

More scandalous cases involved a man who sucked on the cranial fluid of a corpse to heal his lungs and another who attacked a drunken beggar by a river and excised the genitals so that he could feed them to his epileptic lover.

The last high-profile case of cannibalism in Korea took place on 8 September 1960. A man stumbled into a public toilet near the Seoul Train Station just before 4 a.m. only to find a mutilated seven-year-old boy. The killing had been so violent that not only the boy but also the entire space was stained in blood. A closer inspection showed that sizeable chunks of flesh had been cut away from his legs.

That same morning, a seventeen-year-old girl was arrested not too far from the scene because of blood stains on her clothing and clumps of meat, appearing to be of the victim, inside her pocket. It turned out that she had committed the murder to cure herself of epilepsy.

The case file is still available in the National Archives of Korea. The court eventually determined that the perpetrator could only have carried out the crime in a state of insanity, ignoring the fact the girl suffered from epilepsy but no mental disorder.

Source: Chosun Ilbo
Source: Chosun Ilbo (1960)

But the incident revealed that the Korean fetishisation of human parts as medicine was an enduring phenomenon, invulnerable to modernity’s assaults and advances in science and medicine. And judging by the continuing imports of human flesh capsules from abroad today, there are still Koreans who desire to eat others, much to the chagrin of the South Korean state which has had to announce an official ban against the distribution.

The allure of the human flesh, tantalizing for its transgressive implication and claims of restoring beauty, virility, and health, may have met the perfect conditions under which to thrive in contemporary South Korea: an obsession with diet and personal well-being that began with the rise of the middle class, an outsized health supplement industry that dabbles in dubious ingredients, and above all, the commodification of the human being in all its uses as a provider of labour, service, sex, and now it seems, life itself.

 

Editor’s Note: The title of this article was changed from “Why South Koreans Crave Human Flesh” on 30 September 2014.

Cover image: Cannibalism in Brazil in 1557 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.