North Korean Christians are suffering under the ‘ghost disease’ of COVID-19

August 28, 2020 by Ryan Hamm in COVID-19

The “ghost disease.”


That’s what North Koreans call COVID-19. “People can be sick without knowing it,” Brother Simon*, Open Doors’ coordinator for ministry among North Koreans, says. “They are usually malnourished already. Then suddenly, they die quickly. Some even just fall dead on the ground. It’s an invisible killer.”

North Korea has only confirmed one suspected case of COVID-19, but observers believe there are many people infected. North Korea has no means to defend itself against the microscopic virus. “There’s no vaccine, there are no medicines and there are no tests,” Brother Simon says. “How are people going to survive? The central government and local authorities are very fearful of the spread of coronavirus. The only thing they can do is impose lockdowns. Even many market places are closed down, even though the population is completely dependent on the black markets. But even if [the markets were] open, there’s little food you can buy. And prices have quadrupled. It will cost you multiple months’ salary to buy a kilo of rice. Even corn is very expensive. The border with China is closed, which prevents most trade and smuggling activities.”

According to local sources, North Korean laborers who worked abroad brought the virus into the country. Many of these workers were originally from the capital city of Pyongyang and returned there, making the city one a coronavirus hotspot. “The government doesn’t really know what to do,” says Brother Simon. “Kim Jong Un has even left Pyongyang to decrease the chance of him getting ill. He is young, but overweight and has a heart condition. He must have not felt safe, which is why he went to Wonsan. He’s probably still there.”

2020 has been a very difficult year for North Koreans, according to secret Christians who have shared with Brother Simon’s team and contacts. “It’s not just the coronavirus, the lockdowns, the little food and the unaffordable prices that [affect] the people,” Brother Simon says. “They have also seen heavy rainfall, mudslides and now a heat wave. North Koreans are really suffering this year. They are also quite upset with their leaders who don’t take care of them and only think about their own safety. Many people resort to criminal acts, just to survive.”

Secret radio broadcasts are beamed into North Korea from our partners in surrounding countries.

Secret radio broadcasts are beamed into North Korea from our partners in surrounding countries.

Open Doors has much food, medicines, winter clothes and other necessary goods ready for North Korean Christians. But because of the closed borders, our work in surrounding countries for North Korean believers has been difficult. Often, Open Doors partners run safe houses for North Korean Christians in China, and these secret believers return home with goods to strengthen the church. COVID-19 has interrupted this process. “First, God needs to open the door,” Brother Simon says. “Once people are able to come out of the country, we can give them the means to survive. Recently we’ve had a window of opportunity to do a little relief. We’re waiting for the next one.”

North Korea is No. 1 on the Open Doors’ World Watch List of countries where Christians are most persecuted. In the ‘Hermit Kingdom’, even the possession of a Bible can get you and your entire family killed. If you are not executed, then at the very least you’ll be sent to one of the five major labor camps for political prisoners.

Open Doors estimates there are between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians in North Korea. Between 50,000 and 70,000 are in labor camps that are staggering the scope of their brutality. Inmates are tortured, starved and work long hours under dangerous conditions. Sometimes they are used for chemical tests or executed. Many thousands more spend their days in detention centers or re-education camps, though it’s difficult to estimate how many exactly.

Open Doors supports the underground church through its local networks and safe houses in China. Many thousands of Christians receive food, medicines, clothes, books and other Christian materials. Even more believers are able to listen to Christian radio programs, which are broadcast into North Korea during the middle of the night, when it is safest for them to listen.

How you can pray:

  • Please pray that God will protect the North Korean Christians and other civilians from the “ghost disease.” Pray the infection rate in the country will go down.
  • Please pray that God will provide for the North Korean people who are starving.
  • Please pray the border between China and North Korea will open soon. Pray for new windows of opportunity for North Korean Christians to get help from Open Doors.