At least three people in North Korea have been executed for acts of cannibalism during outbreaks of famine in the 1990s and 2000s, according to defectors.

In a report, the South Korean Institute for National Unification said it had interviewed around 230 North Korean exiles who had personally witnessed executions of those found guilty of cannibalism and selling human flesh.

The reports, if true, would corroborate the long-held suspicion that people had turned to eating human flesh in the reclusive Communist state, which has reportedly seen millions perish over the last two decades due to chronic food shortages.

In its report, which is due to be released next week, the Institute said a North Korean was executed in December 2009 for killing a young girl and eating her flesh, according to Yonhap News Agency.

The killing came as a result of the North's disastrous attempts to reform its currency, which caused massive inflation and further food shortages in the impoverished nation.

In another case, a guard reportedly killed a colleague with an axe then ate some of his flesh, before selling parts of the carcass at a local market disguised as mutton.

In 2006, the report continued, a father and son were also shot in the eastern town of Doksong after it emerged they had been caught eating human flesh.

 According to Yonhap, A former North Korean official who defected to the South in 2001 said on May 10 that he heard about more than a dozen cases of cannibalism in 1999 from a North Korean intelligence source.