Famine in North Korea? The Canary in the Coal Mine Says No

When Dr. Foley and I founded Voice of the Martyrs Korea, we were blessed to know nearly nothing about North Korea.

The reason I regard that as a blessing is that what was “known” about North Korea at that time came from the news media, international aid agencies, South Korean missionaries, visiting academics, political think thanks, and the North Korean government. Dr. Foley and I were largely ignorant of this information and instead made what I believe was the God-ordained choice of turning to ordinary North Korean people to learn about their country, to learn how they believed God was working in it, and to learn how we could support them in that vision.

The picture we received was so fundamentally different than what was then “well known” about North Korea that at first people–especially the experts–thought we were crazy. Even crazier, they thought, was our commitment for VOM Korea to be a place where North Koreans are the teachers, strategists, and actors–the subjects, not the objects–of North Korea ministry. From the beginning, every North Korean project we have done has owed its genesis to North Korean Christians.

I wish I could say that things have changed in eighteen years and that today people see North Koreans as the teachers, strategists, and actors. But this month has brought renewed reports from many quarters about North Korea teetering on the brink of a famine so large that purportedly North Koreans are terrified that it is 1993 all over again. Numerous NGOs have unveiled plans to “save North Korea” from famine. As a result, I have received numerous inquiries from people asking me what to make of it all.

As always, I recommend turning to the experts on North Korea: the North Korean defectors. Nearly every accurate piece of information I have ever learned about North Korea, I first learned from a North Korean defector. Only later, if at all, or in partially accurate form, did I see that information shared by those regarded by the general public as North Korean experts.

So while NGOs are wringing their hands (and your pocketbook) about a North Korean famine, it is important to note that the starvation that is occupying the hearts and minds of North Korean defectors is that of the North Korean defector woman and her six year old son who starved to death in Seoul last month. This is not because North Korean defectors are too busy or poorly informed to take note of deadly suffering looming over their relatives still inside of North Korea. Remember, more than eighty percent of North Korean defectors maintain regular monthly contact with their relatives in North Korea. They always–always–have better “ground level” information on what is happening than the United Nations, the academics, the media, the political think tanks, and the South Korean missionaries put together.

North Korean defectors also have a greater natural predilection to care about what is happening to their relatives in North Korea than NGOs or the UN. Contrary to the romantic notions you often hear of in TV testimonies, North Koreans don’t leave North Korea to find “freedom”. They leave North Korea in order to make money to send to their relatives back home. The freedom that compels them is freedom from starvation. They are never caught unawares when it comes to the food security of their families still inside North Korea.

And this is why the canary in the coal mine–that is, the North Korean defector community–isn’t crowing about starvation and famine at the moment. Back in the early 1990s, when North Koreans were starving in the midst of a famine that scars them still today, people starved because they trusted the North Korean government and distribution system. There was no alternative. That reality led to a “never again” mentality which has made it so that no North Korean relies on government rations the way they did before the famine. The idea that today North Koreans somehow queue up hopefully at government distribution centers and meekly receive whatever the North Korean government and international aid agencies (or secret underground distribution networks, for that matter) give them is nothing but a made-for-NGO fundraising fantasy. It is a fundamental error in understanding how ordinary North Koreans think and act.

The famine caused North Koreans to turn away from the North Korean government ration system to two other sources. Neither of these other sources are NGOs. The first is the grey market–the quasi-illegal private economic activity undertaken by nearly every North Korean family. The second is funds sent by relatives who have defected to South Korea. The UN and food security experts always readily admit that they are unable to measure these sources of food security. Sadly, they do not readily mention these sources of food security in their own alarms about food security, which, in reality, tell us more about the inefficiency and insufficiency of the North Korean government’s food security strategies and economic policies than they do about the real hunger of ordinary North Korean people. This is a hunger that is always due to political choices made by the North Korean government (and tacitly endorsed by all other nations negotiating or doing business with that government) that define being human in North Korea as synonymous with being declared loyal and useful to the North Korean government. Until that definition is changed, don’t bet on international aid to feed ordinary North Korean people. Bet on their families. That’s what ordinary North Koreans do.

The grey markets and relatives working abroad–these are what ordinary North Koreans have relied on for food since the 1990s. It’s why you never hear North Korean defectors praising the UN or NGOs for taking care of their relatives still inside North Korea. It’s why North Korean defectors are not the ones urging you to reach deep into your pockets to help the UN and the NGOs “save” North Korea.

Oddly, the only present danger to the grey markets and defector financial remittances back home is not a present famine in North Korea but the present rumblings of “peace” negotiations between geopolitical entities, all of which always put North Korean defectors in more, rather than less, precarious legal and social positions. Political “peace” between these nations further legitimizes the kind of political “solutions” that nations and NGOs love, while undermining the personal agency and freedom of ordinary North Korean people who have somehow managed to care for their families for more than 70 years, whether nations and NGOs were paying attention or not.

If there is a famine in North Korea today, it is the same famine that has existed since Dr. Foley and I started our ministry. It is a famine of listening–a refusal to receive North Korean defectors as teachers, strategists, and actors. Our nations and NGOs want them to be passive objects of pity needing us to save them, while they apparently do nothing more than to sit around and starve while they wait for us.

We should be suspicious any time the North Korean government is advocating the same plan as the NGOs, the media, and the other purported experts. All of these groups have one thing in common: They do not trust ordinary North Korean defectors to be the subjects of destiny shaping the future of their nation.

Fortunately, God trusts North Korean defectors. He’s not wringing his hands nor is he wringing your pocketbook for you to fund the efforts of nations, NGOs, or experts. Like the North Korean defectors, his eye is on the sparrow, and her six year old son, who died last month of starvation, in one of the richest nations on earth. May he grant us to get over ourselves and our savior complexes in order to learn to listen to the prayers and hopes of North Korean people even a tiny fraction as well as he, the one true Savior, always does.


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Help Us Start 5,000 New Sunday Schools Across China in the Next 12 Months

The number one challenge facing the church in China is not cross demolition or church raids. It is the full-scale effort on the part of the Chinese Communist Party to prevent the children of Christians from becoming believers themselves.

That is why Voice of the Martyrs Korea is joining China Aid in announcing today a campaign to open 5,000 Sunday Schools in China in the next twelve months. And we’d like to ask you to join us.

The campaign, called “Sunday School in a Box”, assembles the leading legally available children’s Bible in China, a compact video player, and a comprehensive curriculum of digital resources for parents and children. Each “Sunday School in a box” is designed to reach an average of seven children and will be distributed through VOMK and China Aid’s joint underground house church network. The materials are specially designed to allow parents of all educational levels to teach the full scope of the Christian faith to their own children and relatives.

Voice of the Martyrs Korea and China Aid have now compiled credible reports from every province in China of churches facing harsh penalties if they permit children to attend. But the problem is actually twofold: The children of Chinese Christians are not only being shut out of churches; they are also being taught a comprehensive curriculum in schools that defines Christianity as an evil religion. They are warned to be suspicious of their Christian parents and encouraged them to report any relatives who are practicing Christians.

For the first time in Chinese history, we have reached a point where it is nearly a criminal offense for Christian parents to raise their children as Christians.

Consider the story of a kindergarten-age child and his Christian mother from a July 17 report by the Chinese persecution watchdog website Bitter Winter. At school the child learned that belief in God is abnormal. When he came home, he said to his mother, “If you believe in Christianity, you will leave home and not take care of me. You might set yourself on fire, too.”

This is one of the reasons why the “Sunday School in a Box” is primarily designed to be used by parents rather than professional Christian educators. First of all, there are not many professional Christian educators in the countryside, and even in the cities Sunday school teachers are watched by the government with particular suspicion. But second of all, the home is the place where the battle for the Christian faith is won or lost in every country in every generation. If Chinese Christian parents are not given comprehensive, useful tools to raise their children in the faith, those children will become the first line of persecution against the church in the next few years.

The cost for one Sunday School in a Box is 75,000 KRW ($75USD). Voice of the Martyrs Korea is challenging Korean churches and Christians, as well as our overseas champions, to sponsor one or more boxes.

One of the reasons for the cost of each box is that we are using only materials that are legally available to the Chinese general public through Chinese retail stores. There is no underground printing operation involved. Though it make the cost a little higher this way, it also makes the Sunday School in a Box more difficult for Chinese authorities to oppose on legal grounds.

Since each Sunday School in a Box will reach an average of seven children, even a gift of 10,000 KRW ($10USD) toward the campaign can reach one child. So if you are able to help, please make your gift at https://vomkorea.com/campaign/ssib/ or via electronic transfer to:
국민은행 463501-01-243303
예금주: (사)순교자의소리
Please include the phrase “SSIB” (for Sunday School in a Box”) on the transfer.

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North Korean NGO calls for increase in home visitations following defector starvation

Here’s an English language translation of the press release we sent to Korean Christian media in the wake of the starvation of the North Korean defector and her son here in Seoul last month. Many are calling for increased government welfare programs for North Korean defectors in light of the deaths. But we at VOMK are calling upon all of us Christians to a closer reading and living out of Matthew 25. As Dr. Foley says in the press release below, “If we Christians had done our job, Ms. Han would not have starved.” The Christian’s role is one that cannot be outsourced to the government, in any country. –Your brother Eric Foley

North Korean NGO calls for increase in home visitations following defector starvation

Voice of the Martyrs Korea today rejected calls for increased government aid for North Korean defectors and instead issued a challenge to churches and North Korean defector Christians themselves to substantially increase their home visitation of North Korean defectors.

The challenge comes in the wake of the death due to starvation of a North Korean woman identified as Ms. Han and her 6-year old son earlier this month. The death has led many North Korean defector advocates to call for increased welfare programs and payments for defectors.

But Voice of the Martyrs representative Hyun Sook Foley says that the key to preventing future deaths is not more government aid but a massive increase in home visitations by South Korean Christians and North Korean defector Christians. “The Ministry of Unification says it plans to address ‘blind spots’ in its aid programs, but the biggest blind spot we have is believing the government can what only the church can do,” said Representative Foley. “Only the church can bring the presence of Christ into a North Korean defector’s home. And only the presence of Christ in a North Korean defector’s home can remedy the epidemic levels of suicide, loneliness, and now even starvation that we are seeing.”

Foley’s ministry, Voice of the Martyrs Korea, has two full-time staff people whose primary responsibility is visiting North Korean defectors in their homes, as well as in hospitals and prisons. But Foley emphasizes that North Korean defectors themselves are always the most effective at visiting their fellow defectors. “That is why we operate two Christian discipleship training schools for North Korean defectors,” Foley says. “Defectors at the school are equipped to do home, hospital, and prison visitations and accompany VOMK staff to do visitations each week. The defectors teach us a lot about how we South Koreans can be more effective in North Korean ministry, if we are humble enough to learn.”

Foley notes that several of VOMK’s North Korean defector students lived in the same area as the woman who starved. “The students were hit hard by the death and resolved to expand their visitation efforts to make sure that no one living near them would suffer alone,” said Foley. Foley said to support those expanded efforts, VOMK this week hired a third staff person for the work. The ministry is preparing for a major North Korean defector home visitation initiative over Chuseok, when VOMK’s staff and students will deliver thousands of dumplings to North Korean defectors homes.

But Foley notes that the greatest need is for greater church involvement in visitation. “Because VOMK is not a church, whenever we visit a North Korean defector’s home and find a problem there, we call the defector’s church pastor and explain the dangerous situation to them,” said Foley. “Sadly, nearly 100% of the time the pastor had no idea the problem was there, even if the defector is dealing with a serious illness or depression. And even when we tell them, they are reluctant to visit the defector’s home because they are too busy. They are trained to believe that their role is to make their church services and activities warm and welcoming for North Korean defectors. But the main thing North Korean defectors need is not warm and welcoming church services. They need pastors and church members who can bring the warmth of Christ into their homes, prison cells, and hospital beds.”

Representative Foley believes that the starvation of Ms. Han and her son should shame Korean Christians, not the Ministry of Unification. “In Matthew 25, Jesus tells those on his left to depart from him because they did not visit him in his need,” she says. “The work of the church is visitation. When we visit we are to bring something to eat. Christ gives that responsibility to us, not to the government. If we Christians had done our job, Ms. Han would not have starved. If we are faithful to do the work Christ has assigned to us, such a thing will never happen again to North Korean defectors in our country.”

Representative Foley says VOMK invites Christians interested in volunteering in its North Korean defector ministry to call 02-2065-0703 or visit https://vomkorea.com/get-involved/.

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