Near-starving North Koreans told to ‘tighten belts’

February 3, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Asia

The message North Korea’s regime delivered to the public at the beginning of 2020 is not a hopeful one for the people of North Korea—including the estimated 300,000 secret and imprisoned believers there. North Korean refugee Timothy Cho shares the report, what it means to the daily lives of North Koreans and what we can do in response.

[Reinforcing, North Korea culture of leader worship, the words in white on the flag above reads, ‘”Following the Great Leader, to the ends of the heavens and the earth.”]

It was unusual that the typical New Year’s speech by North Korea’s leader was absent. This year’s message was more like an annual report, which was published in the daily worker’s newspaper at the end of the seventh Party Conference held on December 27-31, 2019.

North Korea’s president Kim Jong-un focused his message on breaking through economic difficulties caused by international sanctions, but not through denuclearization.

In the report, Kim Jong-un said, “It is our strong revolutionary belief that, even if we have to tighten our belts, it is our dignity to protect North Korea’s socialist values against imperialism. We must not dream the US and hostile groups will let us live comfortably. But we must overcome these obstacles faced in the advancement of socialist economic construction, through the power of North Korean people’s self-reliance and spirit.”

Hunger: A reality for thousands of North Korean Christians

This “tightening our belts” reference will affect ordinary civilians the most; many secret believers will struggle without food and shelter. The United Nations estimates that already, half of North Korea’s population is in need and 41 percent are malnourished.  Last year, the country saw the worst drought of almost 40 years.

In February 2019, the country reduced already-reduced rations for its people, and in May the regime took the rare step of publicly admitting there was a crippling drought. A typhoon in early September made the problem even worse, destroying crops and farmland.

Kim Sang-Hwa*, a North Korean Christian who escaped and now lives outside the country, shares what hunger looks like for many in North Korea:

“Imagine waking up at 4:30 am and going to your small piece of land—illegally owned—to do some work on your crops. At 7:30, you will have breakfast; probably corn soup. Then you’ll go to a state company or a state farm to work. Lunch is from 12 to 1. You’ll probably have some more corn or even corn rice. To get real rice in North Korea is often not possible, at least not where I lived. Most rice would go to [the capital city of] Pyongyang anyway. At night, you’d eat corn noodles. Often people are hungry, especially if there’s no food at all. You cannot sleep if you haven’t eaten for a few days. All you can think about is food.”

For Christians in North Korea, the threat is even greater. Already forced underground because of their faith, their access to even the small food rations provided by the government will be taken away if it’s discovered they follow Jesus. If Christians are found out, they can immediately be sent to prison camps, where they work and live in subhuman conditions, forced to eat even less than drought conditions might provide.

Hunger is a brutal reality for many North Korean Christians.

Harkening back to North Korea’s deadly famine of the 1990s, many North Koreans may make the dangerous journey into China in search of food and work. Leaving North Korea is a punishable crime. Often, North Koreans in China are repatriated back to the country where they’re placed in labor camps as an example of the consequences of escape.

Seojun a pastor now living in South Korea, remembers almost starving to death in North Korea and escaping into China to look for food. Watch his story below.

Isolation or economic reconstruction

The current economic situation is a key issue. The country still needs open diplomacy and dialogue with the international community. But there is a deadlock between complete denuclearization and economic acceptance. In part, Pyongyang (North Korea’s seat of government) has recognized the vital need for a process of economic construction.

But it’s clear they are not willing to exchange dictatorial socialism for economic growth.

Despite this, President Trump has clearly not lost hope. On January 2, he said, “I have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un.”

The choice is in the hands of the North Korean regime. They must choose between isolation, or being open to try and be a part of 21st-century globalization. Being truly open would require the regime to bring in a new constitution that allows for an open economy and true freedom of thought and belief.

It is terrifying to the regime to imagine the people of North Korea with true freedom of thought.

Their power comes from the way the Kims are treated as gods. If the people were free to believe anything else, the Kim regime knows that much of their power would be lost.

While Pyongyang’s great isolation and persecution continues, Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List reveals that once again, for the 19th consecutive year, North Korea is ranked as the No. 1 country where Christians face the most extreme persecution.

Punching holes in the darkness

What should the “New Year’s resolutions” be for the church and Christian organizations around the world as they support secret believers in North Korea?

  • Please don’t stop praying for our secret brothers and sisters.
  • Please continue to support the work of Open Doors, working with North Korean Christians through our partner networks in China.
  • Please pray for protection for Open Doors workers as they do this work, so that they can continue to shine a light in the darkness.

Recently, I received a prophecy from a woman who told me she saw fists coming out of the ground of the soil of North Korea. There’s a phrase that’s often attributed to the poet Robert Louis Stevenson—”punching holes in the darkness.” This is what our prayers and actions can do in North Korea.

I continue to ask you to hold this scripture and use it to pray for the voiceless persecuted Christians worldwide in 2020: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

God bless you and your families in this new year, my brothers and sisters!

Join a secret mission

As food supplies dwindle in North Korea and North Koreans "tighten their belts," believers will need the support of the global Church. Through our secret partner networks in China, Open Doors provides food, medicine and clothes to North Korean Christians who are able to cross the border. Many North Korean believers then return home, ready to strengthen the church. Through food, Bibles and emergency aid, you can help the gospel spread in North Korea and more than 60 other countries where Christians pay high prices to pursue their faith.

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