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North Korea9 min read


What you need to know about the hunger crisis in North Korea

Chasey Pittsley
May 06, 2023


In the U.S., it’s hard to imagine life without fast food restaurants, convenience stores on every corner, and supermarkets stocked with fresh produce, meat, and five kinds of milk.

But picture a different reality — one where you can’t reach into your cupboard any time you want a snack. Instead, your meals consist of food the government distributes, plus whatever you can find leftover in the farm fields.

Imagine that your only source of income is whatever the government appoints to you … and it’s never enough to live on.

Worst of all, imagine a life where every storm, every dry season, and every flood comes with the gripping fear of empty storehouses and deadly famine.

Welcome to North Korea.

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Many people in North Korea don’t have enough food to eat

“The hermit kingdom”

Since its founding in 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or simply North Korea, has been one of the world’s most isolated and reclusive nations.

Tourism is strictly controlled, and most of the statistics coming out of the country are altered by the government. In recent years, however, new photographs, along with the testimonies of defectors, have given the rest of the world a glimpse into what goes on in “the hermit kingdom.”

And it isn’t nearly as happy and picturesque as the North Korean government wants us to believe.

Instead, people are starving to death.

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For a long time, tight borders prevented the outside world from knowing much about North Korea

A deadly famine

North Korea’s serious food shortages began in the 1990s when a devastating famine ravaged the nation. Back then, North Korea relied heavily on the Soviet Union for food and fuel. But when the Soviet Union broke apart, critical imports into North Korea stopped.

Also, around this time, major floods destroyed large amounts of farming land, and a years-long drought followed soon after.

Faced with a food crisis and a series of failed harvests, North Korea was plunged into a famine that reportedly killed at least one million people.

The nation recovered from the extreme famine, but its impact has never truly gone away. And now, things are getting worse again.

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Most North Koreans can’t live on what food the government gives them

A growing food crisis

In January 2020, North Korea took extensive measures against the spread of COVID-19 by closing almost all trade and banning what little travel it allowed in and out of the country.

But these new steps to keep COVID-19 out came at a high cost — North Korea no longer received critical food and fuel supplies from countries like China.

Even with extensive precautions, North Korea couldn’t keep the pandemic at bay forever; after two years of claiming there were no cases inside the country, the coronavirus finally started to spread in 2022. The timing couldn’t have been worse — the entire country closed down during the most important months of the harvest season.

To make matters even worse, recent floods and typhoons, followed by the nation’s second-worst drought in history, ruined the already minuscule harvest.

As a result, North Korea’s economy, which relies heavily on farming and trade, took a devastating downturn. Almost half of North Korea’s population was dealing with food insecurity before the pandemic … now, the number of hungry North Koreans is steadily rising with no clear end in sight.

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Border restrictions have cut off much of North Korea’s food supply

Nowhere to turn

Despite North Korea’s efforts to hide the severity of its food crisis, people are starving. Children are at an especially high risk of malnutrition.

Here’s why.

In North Korea, every person is assigned a government-sanctioned job. Though these jobs often require them to work long and hard hours, they don’t pay much.

With such limited incomes and advancement opportunities, many families also have side businesses where they buy imported products and resell them at a higher price. But because the borders have closed, they no longer have any way of getting that extra money.

Now, starving families search the fields or the countryside for leftover grain, roots, and other wild plants to feed their children.

In some cases, desperate parents have even dropped their children off at orphanages because they simply can’t feed them.

Children living on the streets have been affected even more. Tragically, North Korea’s population of homeless children is so prolific that it has its own name. Commonly referred to as kotjebi, these homeless children travel to the local markets every day to search for food that has been thrown out.

In fact, kotjebi literally translates to “flowering swallows” in reference to their constant search for food and shelter.

Much of the food they find is spoiled, but for these children, it’s better than enduring yet another night with an empty stomach.

But since the pandemic has shut down many of these markets, they don’t have anywhere to get food. They’re starving, and some have even died.

Send food and Bibles to North Korea
Homeless children in North Korea are especially affected by the food crisis

How you can help

The hunger crisis in North Korea is getting worse. Some trade has resumed, but it’s not nearly enough to feed everyone. Families still can’t put food on the table. Children are still going to bed hungry. And more and more people are suffering from severe malnutrition and other illnesses.

But there are ways you can help.

First, pray for North Korea. It’s the most important thing you can do.

— Pray that North Korea would open its borders again to allow trade.

— Pray for an end to the drought that’s destroying crops.

— Pray that the North Korean government would make wise decisions regarding its citizens.

— Pray that Kim Jong Un would allow other countries to help the people of North Korea.

— Pray for North Korean Christians who face severe persecution in addition to starvation.

Second, you can help North Koreans by giving financially. When you donate, you will provide Christians and others suffering in North Korea with lifesaving food and a copy of God’s Word. Your gift will be a lifeline for those who are both physically and spiritually hungry.

North Koreans are crying out for help. Will you answer their pleas? You’ll provide not only help for today … but also hope for tomorrow.

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