“By the end of 1998, the worst of the famine was over, not necessarily because anything had improved but … because there were fewer mouths to feed.”
That’s the sad picture journalist Barbara Demick paints in her book, “Nothing to Envy.” In this passage, she describes the aftermath of the March of Suffering — a famine that gripped North Korea from 1995 to 1999.
Now, North Korea is experiencing another deadly famine, one that even Kim Jong-un himself has compared to the March of Suffering. So why is this happening again?
It really boils down to three reasons: isolation from the rest of the world, the coronavirus pandemic, and recent natural disasters. And now North Koreans — especially Christians who are already facing persecution — desperately need help to survive.
Isolation from the rest of the world
For decades, North Korea has been one of the most closed-off countries in the world, and limited trade with other nations has led to multiple food shortages.
Before the Soviet Union fell, it provided North Korea with cheap imported food and fuel, but this alliance didn’t last forever. After the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, North Korea had to take care of itself.
North Korea’s cold weather and frequent droughts and floods make it difficult for farmers to produce their own crops. So, they asked for help from other countries.
International aid did come … but the North Korean government misused the rations. Instead of caring for the civilians, they distributed most of the food among the military and political elite.
Many families had to survive on watery porridge. Others became so hungry that they started eating grass. This was the March of Suffering.
By the time this period of starvation ended in 1999, hundreds of thousands of people had died. Some estimates even put that number in the millions.
The world saw North Korea’s mismanagement of the resources they had sent, and many countries were wary to do business with the nation again.
North Korea is also very secretive and doesn’t often release its economic information, making it a risky trading partner. Plus, the United Nations, the European Union, and multiple countries have sanctions in place against North Korea prohibiting trade because of its unchecked nuclear program and gross human rights abuses.
As the years rolled by, though, China formed a strong trading relationship with North Korea.
North Korea relied on its neighbor for much of its food and other imported goods … that is, until last year when the pandemic hit.
The coronavirus pandemic
When the coronavirus began spreading out of China in early 2020, North Korea quickly closed the border between the two nations.
Their trade with China dropped 80 percent, cutting off their main source of food.
Additionally, entire communities were put under strict lockdown, prohibiting people from leaving the house to find something to eat.
Families began to starve. Many became so desperate that they risked going outside anyway … and were quickly arrested.
There have been reports that the political prison camps across the country are being expanded and an entirely new facility has been built to house the growing number of people violating lockdown orders in the search for food. Border patrols also have orders to “shoot to kill” anyone trying to cross the border.
“This is similar to the greatest famines of the 1990s in North Korea,” one of our North Korean partners said.
The North Korean government claims its strict lockdown measures have been successful in keeping out the virus, with zero cases reported. Experts around the world, however, agree that having absolutely no cases is next to impossible.
And while the restrictions may have kept North Korea’s crippled medical system from being completely overwhelmed by an outbreak of COVID-19, the famine caused by these restrictions may result in just as many deaths if not more.
With trade with China cut off, North Korea has been more dependent that ever on its own farmers to keep grocery store shelves full. But droughts and floods over the past year have destroyed many of the crops.
In 2019, North Korea was already experiencing its worst harvest in 10 years, caused by dry spells and heat waves. Food rations were cut to record lows with people receiving less than 11 ounces of food per day. The U.N. predicted that 10 million people were on the verge of starvation.
Then, after the pandemic hit and North Korea desperately needed a successful harvest, another round of drought followed by three back-to-back typhoons. The parched ground couldn’t handle the massive amounts of rain, so entire fields of crops were washed away.
With no crops and no imported food either, countless North Korean families are starving and parents like Cho are having to watch their children suffer.
Cho is an underground Christian in North Korea, so we’ve changed his name to keep him safe.
Before he became a Christian, Cho worked in a North Korean prison far away from his home, and he had to leave his children in his mother’s care. While he was gone, there was a food shortage, and the family had nothing to eat.
Cho went home to check on them the earliest chance he got, but what he found was horrible. The grandmother had left, hysteric because there was no food.
Cho’s children had starved to death and were lying dead in each other’s arms.
That was even before this increased wave of famine caused by isolation, the pandemic, and natural disasters. So you can imagine how much more people are suffering now and how many more stories like Cho’s are going untold.
And on top of starvation, North Korean Christians are also facing some of the worst religious persecution on earth. Not only can they get arrested or killed for going out in search of food. They could also get thrown into prison just for reading God’s Word.
Still, they are begging for Bibles. They need God’s Word now more than ever!
Today, you can give a starving North Korean Christian the two things he needs most. Your $20 gift will provide both a week’s worth of food and a Bible for someone struggling to survive.
Our partners in North Korea are still hard at work smuggling Bibles and food to those who need it most. They are having to be extra careful, but God’s Word and the help you send are still getting through!
And since North Koreans share their Bibles with family and friends, your gift will multiply. Every Bible you send reaches an average of five people.
Your gift today will help meet the physical and the spiritual needs of a Christian in desperate need.
Please show love to your North Korean brothers and sisters by providing them with what they are crying out for most: food and Bibles.