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North Korea celebrates 70 year anniversary amid sanctions and the threat of famine

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established in the North on 9 September 1948. On Sunday North Korea will celebrate its 70th anniversary. “It’s a national holiday in North Korea,” John Choi* a North Korean escapee told Open Doors. “People will have the day off, which is nice considering that the average North Korean works for 10 days before they get a day off. During ‘mobilization periods’, like when Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump fell out last year, they have to work non-stop.”

Despite the celebrations many experts are warning of an impending food crisis after U.N sanctions have restricted banking and shipping to the country. Humanitarian aid has ground to a halt and organisations which have been working in North Korea for many years have pulled out. As the sanctions show no sign of easing North Korean state media has warned of an ‘unprecedented natural disaster’ due to the heatwave earlier this summer.

Despite the sanctions Open Doors smuggles food, medicine, clothes and other urgent aid for tens of thousands of Christians in North Korea every month.

“In the famine of the 1990s as many as 3.5 million people died of starvation. Many families were ripped apart, including mine,” said John Choi. “As an eight-year-old I had to survive several years on the streets and finding food was my only goal in life.

“People are worried. They expect a smaller harvest this year caused by the serious drought. There has been a constant hunger in North Korea but if the sanctions and lack of internal resources continue then increased hunger rates are inevitable."

Hunger has become an ever-present enemy for most of the North Korean population. A kilo of rice costs more than twice the average monthly salary. Other daily necessities are outrageously expensive. There are black markets if there is food available, but the prices are usually unaffordable.

A source inside North Korea told Open Doors: “These days our province people are suffering with severe starvation and hunger. Most people suffer from malnutrition. Furthermore, we can’t use our stoves, because there’s no firewood.

“Cholera is fast spreading due to impure water and bad hygiene. There are hundreds of patients who are suffering. More than half of them are young children and elderly patients. People are dying of starvation and from various diseases are increasing day by day.”

One Christian told Open Doors: “We cannot imagine how we’d be able to survive without your concern, guidance, support and love for our believers. Whenever we face strong storms of difficulty, we remember that you care for us. Through your love and care, we break through any circumstance, just like spring breaks through the ice cold winter.”

THE 1994 – 1998 FAMINE

As the possibility of another famine looms Joo Eun*, a middle-aged North Korean woman now living in South Korea, recalls how she lost her mother, father and brother in the famine of the 1990s and barely survived herself. She said: “One day the food distribution simply stopped. We didn't receive anything anymore. The government gave us the advice to go into the mountains, pluck grass and make soup with some salt. It tasted really awful, very bitter.

“I was not angry with the government. The reason that we did not get any food was because there simply was no food. That was the fault of the Americans, I believed. I also thought it was silly to be angry. There was no time for that. You'd better go and find some food.”

After her father died from starvation, Joo Eun started stealing fruit from a state farm to sell at the market. Due to lack of education North Koreans don’t understand the benefits of fruit and vegetables so Joo Eun never earnt much money for it. “I couldn't afford corn. Sometimes I had just enough money for some bread. I wanted so much to share it with my brother and mother, but I was so hungry. Before I got home, I had eaten it all. And then I lied about it. I said that I had been given too little money to buy anything. I always resolved to do better. The next time I would resist, but I couldn't. So after that, I took my mother with me to the market. Then we could at least eat it together straight away. But in the end, my mother died anyway.”

Without her parents to look after her, Joo Eun went to stay with her aunt and uncle who lived in Pyongyang where there was more food. One day, her brother arrived too. “I was shocked when I saw my brother. His stomach was completely swollen with hunger and he was covered in cuts, scratches and bruises,” she said.

Joo Eun was not allowed to let him in, because he looked like his father and Joo Eun’s uncle and aunt really disliked him. “They said, ‘Your brother is just as bad as your father, take him to the station. That's where they collect the dead bodies.’ He wasn’t even dead yet. But I had to obey my aunt, or they would have put me out on the street too. That would have meant my death. I felt so powerless.”

Joo Eun put her brother in a wheelbarrow and took him to the station. She sat and waited at a distance until he died that night at 3am in the freezing cold. The next morning she went back but his body had already gone.

After she lost her brother, Joo Eun escaped to China and made her way to South Korea where she now lives.

North Korea is number 1 on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List. Persecution is led by the state which sees Christians as hostile elements that have to be eradicated. Due to constant indoctrination, neighbours and family members, including children, are highly watchful and report anything suspicious to the authorities. If Christians are discovered, they are deported to labour camps as political criminals or killed on the spot; their families share their fate.

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