SEOUL—The fate of dozens of giant rabbits sent to North Korean to start breeding a cheap source of protein for the famine-hit poor is still unknown, leading to speculation that they may already have been eaten by officials in the isolated Stalinist state.
“I am not aware of [exactly] what happened after we sent the rabbits,” said Jin Sook Lee, the director of the German charity, the German Overseas Korean Cooperation Association. “I don’t even know if they are being used to boost the food supply.”
She said the intended breeding program had run into difficulties once the German-bred outsize rabbits arrived in the isolated Stalinist state, where some sectors of the population still face malnutrition.
To ensure the successful expansion of the giant rabbit population, rabbit cross-breeding and species hybridization were needed, Lee said.
But many female rabbits failed to get pregnant, and of the rabbit kittens that were born, many were deformed, she added.
Several charities have raised money to send giant rabbits to North Korea to boost the food supply, as the animals yield up to 10 kilos (22 lbs) of meat.
While the uber-bunnies normally breed as rapidly as their smaller cousins, the French humanitarian group Premier Urgence said it had send staff to North Korea to boost “rabbit breeding skills” among officials in charge of the farms.
The charity, which has received around U.S.$1.5 million in European Commission assistance funds for North Korea, said last November it planned to send a further 200 giant rabbits purchased in neighboring China to North Korea.
Chinese media have meanwhile reported comments made to the German magazine Der Spiegel by the original breeder of giant rabbits Karl Szmolinsky, who has had no information from North Korean officials since he sent 12 rabbits to boost the breeding farms in 2007.
“The only conclusion I can come to is that my rabbits made a nice meal for someone,” an online Chinese farmers’ news service quoted him as saying.
“I would really like to go over there and give them a hand."
Premiere Urgence said in November that it had sent giant rabbits to seven farms in the country, including Ryongsung in Pyongyang, Youngtan in Northern Hwanghae province, Mikok, and Chungjong in Northern Pyongan province.
Premiere Urgence said it planned to help the North Koreans improve giant rabbit reproductive rates by sending equipment and working on rabbit-farming skills.
The group said in November it had already dispatched three international staff members to Pyongyang, including a French and a Dutch national, while seven local staff members were already in the office, tasked with technical and clerical duties.
In an attempt to overcome severe food shortages, the North Korean authorities have already experimented with chicken, cow, and pig farming.
However, because of the decrepit state of North Korea’s facilities and the lack of technical skills, most attempts to raise livestock for food appear to have failed.
Director Lee said that sending giant rabbits from Europe was very expensive, costing about U.S. $100 per animal.
The first two rabbits to travel to North Korea paid a fare of U.S. $1,300, with vaccinations and veterinary fees on top of that.
She said her group had given up further plans to send giant rabbits to North Korea.
Experts also said the giant rabbits require more than one kilo (2.2 lbs) of carrots and potatoes daily, hard to come by in impoverished North Korea.
Szmolinsky, 67, of the eastern German town of Eberswalde near Berlin, was first approached by North Korean officials in 2006 after he won a prize for breeding Germany’s largest rabbit.
According to the United Nations, North Korea suffers widespread food shortages, and many people “struggle to feed themselves on a diet critically deficient in protein, fats, and micronutrients.”
Each of Szmolinsky’s rabbits produces around seven kilos (15 lbs) of meat, and under normal conditions should be able to produce 60 offspring a year.
Original reporting in Korean by Jungmin Roh and Ahreum Jeong. Korean service director: Bong Park. Translated from the Korean by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Translated from the Chinese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.