Which country has avoided any deaths from Covid-19 in 2020? If you believe the official reports, it’s North Korea. But those who’ve heard first-hand know better about what North Koreans call ‘the ghost disease’.
“People can be sick without knowing it. They are usually malnourished already. Then suddenly they die quickly. Some even just fall dead on the ground,” says Brother Simon*, Open Doors’ coordinator for ministry among North Koreans, who works through a network in China. “It’s an invisible killer.”
And it’s not just contracting the virus that is dangerous. Like most countries, North Korea has taken measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 – but lockdowns have meant that little food is getting into the country, either legally or on the black market. Even at the best of times, survival can be extremely difficult in North Korea. Now it’s impossible.
“Many market places have closed down, even though the population is completely dependent on the black markets,” says Brother Simon. “But even if they are open, there’s little food you can buy. And prices have quadrupled. It will cost you many 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.”
Security at the border with China remains high, and new wire fencing was recently put up in the Yalu River area. Despite the increased security, there have been some clear breaches of border control, and North Koreans returning from abroad are believed to have spread the virus – the authorities now admit there are cases of infection, even if the death toll is supposedly zero. The city of Kaesong was put under total lockdown after a North Korean defector to South Korea returned, on 19 July, swimming back across the border into the city. Many argue that he is being used as a scapegoat, and there were already cases of infection before he returned. Since then, the situation in the city (as in most of the country) has been exacerbated by shortages of food, rising food prices, and a lack of firewood and other basic items.
2020 has become a very difficult year for North Koreans, secret Christians reported to Brother Simon’s team and contacts. “It’s not just the coronavirus, the lockdowns, the little food and the unaffordable prices that chastise the people. They have also seen heavy rainfall, mudslides and now a heat wave. North Koreans are really suffering this year.
The UN have said that they’re ready to provide aid to affected people in the flood-damaged areas – but North Korean authorities won’t let UN representatives into the country, even to give crucial aid. Presumably it’s because of the human rights violations they would witness. In recent weeks, many foreign embassies have left Pyongyang (including Britain, Germany, France and Sweden, with unconfirmed reports of several others leaving). Official reasons have not been given.
Thanks to the prayers and gifts of Open Doors supporters, Brother Simon’s team has food, medicines, winter clothes and other necessary goods ready for North Korean Christians. “But 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 been number one on the World Watch List of countries where it is hardest to be a Christian – it’s been number one for nearly two decades. Even owning a Bible can get you and your family killed or sent to a horrendous labour camp.
Open Doors estimates there are between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians in North Korea. Between 50,000 and 70,000 are in death camps – no prisoner leaves them alive. Inmates are tortured, starved and work long hours under dangerous conditions, and conditions are rife for the spread of any virus, Covid-19 included.
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.
Raise the issue of Christians who are last in line for Covid-19 food and aid. Post a photo on social media of yourself with an empty plate and a cross - however you want to interpret that. Tag @opendoorsuk, your MP and #TheLastInLine.