[Urgent prayer] Almost half of North Korea is starving

April 29, 2021 by Lindy Lowry in Asia

I had a very difficult time. I put every effort to get a warm bowl of rice. It was miserable and harsh.”

North Korean refugee Seojun grows emotional as he remembers the hardship of growing up during North Korea’s “Great Famine” in the 1990s. He shares how he roamed the countryside foraging for vegetables, often going hungry.

Now a church pastor in South Korea, Seojun left North Korea when he was a young man to cross the border into China and bring back food. But as the risk of prison in North Korea grew, Seojun  That trek is far behind him now, but the trauma remains.

Watch Seojun’s story

A ‘more difficult Arduous March’

A new report by the United Nations indicates North Koreans could be facing the same situations Seojun described. The UN released a statement saying that 40 percent of the country’s population (25.8 million) is starving.

While North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has previously told North Koreans to “tighten their belts” and has spoken about the country’s economic difficulties, at the beginning of this month, speaking at a party conference, Kim used words he has not previously uttered publicly to describe the current situation facing North Koreans, including more than an estimated 400,000 underground Christians.

Speaking to his party officials, the 37-year-old leader called on them to “wage another, more difficult ‘Arduous March’ in order to relieve our people of the difficulty, even a little.” The Arduous March refers to the name the North Korean people gave the great famine of the 1990s in which 2-3 million people died—a crisis created when the fall of the Soviet Union left North Korea without vital aid.

Kim’s reference to the “more difficult ‘Arduous March,’” offers us a glimpse of the crisis North Koreans are currently facing due, in large part, to North Korea shutting its borders to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Colin Zwirko, North Korea analyst at NK News, told the BBC, “It is not unusual for Kim Jong-un to talk about difficulties and hardship but this time the language is quite stark and that’s different.”

Days before the conference, Kim remarked that the country faced the “worst-ever situation” and “unprecedentedly numerous challenges.”

A month’s wages for 35 ounces of corn

For North Koreans who struggled to survive during the “Great Famine,” Kim’s words bring back horrific memories and images.

Hea-Woo, a North Korean prison camp survivor, recalls watching as her daughter grew sick from malnutrition and died during the famine.

Open Doors sources report that today, market prices are unstable and are often skyrocketing. Even with the markets being allowed open, most people don’t have the money to buy anything. Our sources also report that many citizens have already passed away due to malnutrition and starvation.

The UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, noted last month” that “deaths by starvation have been reported, as has an increase in the number of children and elderly people who have resorted to begging as families are unable to support them.”

The report also notes that trade between North Korea and China decreased by 80 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. Essentially, trade with China, the country’s economic lifeline, has come to a standstill—resulting in a significant decrease in market activities, reducing earnings for many families who relied on small-scale market activities.

“North Koreans are dependent on things they can find in the woods or the mountains,” says an Open Doors spokesperson. “And many goods are smuggled from China and through North Korea before they end up on the black market. The official economy was already in a coma, but now the shadow economy has also taken a huge hit, putting the lives of millions of children and adults at risk.”

As the border restrictions continue in North Korea, the shortages of food have quadrupled prices [at the market], says North Korean escapee Timothy*, who is now working for Open Doors.

The price of corn, the staple diet for most of rural North Korea, has reportedly fluctuated tremendously. At times, 35 ounces of corn has cost more than a month’s wages.

And Human Rights Watch reports that “there are so many more beggars, some people died from hunger in the border area, and there’s no soap, toothpaste, or batteries.”

Coronavirus-created vulnerabilities

In more than a year since the coronavirus emerged, the North Korean government has still not confirmed a coronavirus outbreak—in fact, they continue to insist there has not been a single confirmed case. Yet, no foreigners are allowed into the country and all North Korean citizens are unable to move around freely. Observers believe there are many people infected.

Our partners report that locals have called coronavirus the “ghost disease.”

“People can be sick without knowing it,” says Brother Simon*, Open Doors’ coordinator for ministry among North Koreans. “They are usually malnourished already. Then suddenly, they die quickly. Some even just fall dead on the ground. It’s an invisible killer. “There’s no vaccine, there are no medicines and there are no tests.”

In its report on North Korea, the UN said that the country’s drastic containment measures have resulted in a number of concerning consequences that further isolate the North Korean people from the outside world.

Unconfirmed reports indicated that a one-mile buffer zone has been set up along the borders and that officials have authorized law enforcement agencies to “shoot on sight” anyone attempting to cross the country’s borders. On Dec. 4, 2020, a man in his 50s, allegedly involved in illicit trade with China, was reportedly publicly executed.

The COVID-19 situation has also increased the vulnerability of North Korean prisoners (Open Doors estimates 50,000 to 75,000 Christians are currently imprisoned for their faith). Prisoners in work camps rely on family visits to access decent food and medical care. However, families are currently unable to visit them due to COVID-19.

In addition to COVID-19 prevention measures that have crippled the country, North Korea was also hit by two major storms last summer, which caused flooding. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported on May 18, 2020, that North Korea had a shortage of 860,000 tons of grain. believed to have damaged crops, exacerbating the food crisis.

Yet, the country keeps its doors closed.

‘God hasn’t forgotten us’

At the moment, North Koreans are unable to receive help via Open Doors’ networks in China because they can’t get over the border to China. “We always say that prayer is just as important as giving,” says the Open Doors spokesperson who is closely involved with the Open Doors North Korea team. Our teams get food to North Korea in secret ways. “We really plead for the prayers and financial support of our donors. We need both and can’t have one without the other.” Once border crossings are a bit easier, our teams are ready with aid to support North Korean Christians.

Every relief package in the hands of a North Korean Christian will save a family—Open Doors has seen this reality in countless crises in North Korea. “One time I stood at the Chinese-North Korea border,” our spokesperson continues. “I could see a village and I knew there were secret believers over there. I felt so discouraged that all we could do was give them some food and sometimes some Christian materials. But then I remembered a message we received from one of them. This person wrote, ‘Thanks to your help, I know that God hasn’t forgotten us.’ This is how God reminded me that we don’t bring bags with rice. We bring hope.”

Seojun shares what finally receiving food and shelter in an Open Doors house in China meant to him both physically and spiritually. “I could not understand why the safe house would provide what I needed without any compensation,” he says. “The only motivation was God’s love. I came to realize that. That is why the safe house ministry is so important.  People come to fill their needs, and the place that fills those needs is the safe house. And through those needs, people come to seek God and truly experience [His] love. That is why this ministry is necessary.”

top photo: Eric Lafforgue / Alamy Stock Photo

Pray with us for North Korea

  • the impact of COVID-19 on the food situation. Pray goods would be available and that famine wouldn’t return
  • North Koreans would be able to cross the border to China to reach our teams that are ready and waiting with aid
  • protection of secret believers
  • North Korean government would accept international aid
  • North Korean regime to open their hearts to see the truth of Jesus and His love—and that His love will lead them to care for the millions of people living under starvation and persecution
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