NORTH Korea has publicly executed at least three people in recent years after they were found guilty of cannibalism, according to a think tank in Seoul.
Some of the 230 defectors interviewed by the Korean Institute for National Unification told of witnessing executions of people who had either eaten or sold human flesh.
There were reports of outbreaks of cannibalism in the isolated state in the late 1990s after a disastrous famine led to the deaths of an estimated 2 million people, but the new reports are more recent, according to the Yonhap news agency.
The most recent case occurred in 2011 in the town of Musan, a defector told the institute, while a father and his son were executed by a firing squad in the town of Doksong in 2006 after being found guilty of consuming human flesh.
In a third case, a man was executed in Hyesan in December 2009 for killing a girl and eating her. The man reportedly resorted to cannibalism after supplies to the city dwindled in the wake of the government's disastrous efforts to reform the currency triggered rampant inflation and worsened already critical food shortages.
The study is to be published in South Korea next week, but appears to corroborate North Korean police documents that were smuggled out of the country by the missionary group Caleb Mission and detailed several more cases of cannibalism.
In one case, a starving man used an axe to kill a work colleague, ate some of the flesh and sold the rest in a local market as mutton.
Pyongyang has been accused of using food supplies as a weapon to cow its own people, effectively turning a blind eye to illegal markets when food is scarce but then cracking down on private sales again and limiting deliveries when supplies are more abundant.
It is also accused of failing to pass on food aid that it receives from international aid agencies to those most in need.
A survey of 500 refugees from the regime conducted by the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights in March 2011 showed that 391 had never received food aid and, of the 109 who had been given food, 29 said they had been forced to hand it over to North Korean officials when the aid agency's representatives had departed.
China is also investigating allegations that capsules of drugs being smuggled into South Korea contain the powdered remains of dead babies.