Chilled octopus from the Namhae Tongyeong sea, garnished with citrus soy sauce. Beef from South Korea’s indigenous Hanwoo cattle. Sea bream and steamed crab. Mango mousse.
What do these things have in common? They were all on the menu when Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, and Moon Jae-in, the President of South Korea, had their historic first meeting in April last year.
It was the first time the leader of North Korea and the leader of South Korea had met in over a decade, and the food they ate together was full of symbolism. There were dishes from the two leaders’ childhoods, noodles specially imported from Pyongyang, and the mango mousse even had a map of a united Korea on it.
But this meal is something that ordinary North Koreans can only dream about.
Kim Jong-un rules North Korea with an iron fist, and every aspect of life there is controlled by the state. All resources, including food, are owned and distributed by the government, and North Korea operates a ‘military first’ policy, meaning that the country’s leaders and armed forces are provided for first; ordinary people get whatever’s left.
Often, that isn’t anything at all.
Every year there are natural disasters, with droughts in the dry seasons and flooding and mud slides in the rainy seasons. Harvests are poor.
Joo Eun*, a North Korean who now lives in South Korea, remembers, “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.” Her mother and brother eventually died of starvation.
And Christians are some of the people that Kim Jong-un hates the most. Why? Because Kim Jong-un expects to be worshipped and obeyed as a God – and Christians have the audacity to believe in Jesus and follow Him first, before any earthly leader. Between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians are imprisoned in horrific labour camps in North Korea. Hundreds of thousands more follow Jesus in absolute secret. North Korea has been number one on the Open Doors World Watch List, our annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the worst persecution, since 2002.
And yet, Christians in North Korea don’t hate Kim Jong-un – they pray for him. One believer told us, “They don’t pray that God will depose him or get rid of him. They genuinely ask God to save their leader for the eternal life.”
Isaiah 25:6 says, “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines.” If the prayers of North Korean Christians are answered, it could be that one day, on the mountain of the Lord, they will feast together with Kim Jong-un.
LIKE SPRING AFTER WINTER
But there isn’t much feasting going on in North Korea right now. The freezing winter makes life even harder. In January, temperatures are typically between -3 degrees Celsius and -13 degrees Celsius in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. One secret believer in North Korea told us, “In winter everything is frozen and there’s nothing to eat. These days in our province people are suffering with severe starvation and hunger. Most people suffer from malnutrition. Furthermore, we can’t use our heating stoves, because there’s no firewood.”
Another told us, “Cholera is spreading fast due to impure water and bad hygiene. There are hundreds of patients who are suffering from a severe diarrhoea, and more than half of them are young children and elderly patients whose level of immunity is low. Therefore, people dying of starvation and from various diseases are increasing day by day.”
Despite having very little, Christians in North Korea choose to share what they do have with those who have even less.
One secret worker says, “At the height of the famine a leader felt called to reintroduce the concept of ‘holy rice’, a practice whereby rice is set apart for use in God’s kingdom. Ever since, these Christians don’t consume all the food they receive from us. They save some to give to people who are even worse off than them. This gives them an opportunity to build trust and later share the gospel with these people.”
This practice even continues when secret Christians are discovered and imprisoned in North Korea’s infamous labour camps. Hea Woo*, a Christian who was imprisoned in North Korea, remembers, “I stood out among the other prisoners, because I helped them. Sometimes I shared some rice with the sick. Occasionally I washed their clothes, too.”
When she describes the daily routine in the camp, you realise how little food the prisoners were given. She says, “At five o’clock we were woken up and the prisoners were counted. After breakfast, which consisted of two or three spoons of rice, we were marched out of the camp, where we had to work in the fields without a break until 12 o’clock.
“Back in the camp, we were again given a few mouthfuls of food, after which we went back to our work on the land until six o’clock in the evening. In the evenings, we had a criticism session in the camp, during which we had to sit in front of the group and accuse ourselves and others of offenses.
“After a few more spoonfuls of food, we were then given ideological training. This was the most difficult part of the day. Our eyes fell shut from exhaustion, but we had to pay attention and learn the words of the leaders off by heart. Otherwise we were punished. After another roll call, at ten o’clock we were finally allowed to go to sleep.”
The rations given to prisoners in the camps are so small that they will resort to eating anything they can find to supplement their diet – including snakes, rats, mice and insects.
Even in the midst of these horrific conditions, Hea Woo was able to shine as a light. She says, “God used me to lead five people to faith. I tried to teach them what I knew. That may not have been much, and I didn’t have access to a Bible in the camp. But on Sunday and at Christmas, we met together out of the view of the guards. Often that was in the toilet. There we held a short service. I taught them Bible verses and some songs, which we sang almost inaudibly. All six of us survived the camp, because we took care of one another.”
HOW CAN I HELP MY PERSECUTED CHURCH FAMILY?
North Korea is the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian – but it isn’t the only place where Christians face extreme persecution. There are secret believers in other places, such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Iran, where Christians must hide their faith from dictators and extremists, and risk imprisonment or even death for following Jesus.
It can seem like our persecuted brothers and sisters are too far away, and their lives are too different from ours, for us to really help them. but that isn’t true. There are two things you can do today that will make all the difference for our persecuted church family.
You can pray. Brother Andrew, the founder of Open Doors, says: “Our prayers can go where we cannot. There are no borders, no prison walls, no doors that are closed to us when we pray.”
Each time you sit down for a meal this week, why not take a moment to pray for your church family in North Korea? Pray that God would provide food for our brothers and sisters and that our church family would continue to shine as a light, even in the darkest places.
You can give. You can’t help every persecuted believer, but by giving a gift, you could keep hope alive for one brother or sister. Your gift could mean the difference between life and death – and the long-term support of people like you is helping an entire generation of believers not only survive, but also continue to show the love of Jesus to those around them.
Your faithful support is enabling Open Doors workers and partners to be there for our persecuted brothers and sisters for as long as it takes, and show them that they are not forgotten or alone.
*Name changed for security reasons