N. Korean Christians facing starvation as regime bans cash aid to defectors’ families amid COVID-19

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attends a welcoming ceremony and review an honor guard at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on March 1, 2019.
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attends a welcoming ceremony and review an honor guard at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on March 1, 2019. | MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images

Persecuted Christians in North Korea are facing heightened challenges amid the coronavirus outbreak, fearing they might not survive because defectors are now barred from sending money back home.

Songyon Lee, a Christian living in South Korea, told Radio Free Asia that she'd received several letters from her mother in North Korea detailing the hardships believers are facing during COVID-19.

“I understand your difficult circumstances as you try to settle down in your new life in South Korea,” Songyon’s mother wrote. “But it is a very difficult moment here. Please help me one more time.”

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Songyon said she sent money to her mother back in March, but with the rising cost of food and the supply of imported food rapidly disappearing, the North Korean people are struggling to survive.

North Korea has increased border security due to COVID-19, causing many North Korean brokers’ and smugglers’ activities to decrease. Earlier this year, the country shut down cross-border travel with China and Russia, restricted domestic travel, and placed diplomats and foreigners under effective house arrest, The Washington Post reports

One broker told Songyon, “I’m afraid and scared of even making a call these days; there is a real crackdown on North Korean defectors and brokers. Not now, but let’s wait until the current level of security calms down,” he said of getting money to her mother in North Korea. 

Persecution watchdog group Open Doors USA notes that the inability to send money affects the North Korean underground church of an estimated 300,000 believers. One believer told the organization: “The church cannot survive without food.” 

A March 2019 survey by the North Korea Human Rights Information Center in South showed that six out of 10 defectors had sent money to their family members in North Korea, with the average amount of $2,460 sent each time, according to Open Doors

"Without the defectors' economy, the economic crisis in North Korea will only get worse— many will not survive the actual illness and the food shortages created by the lockdowns and a crop-destroying drought," Open Doors warns. 

The Korean Herald reports that the most recent anti-Pyongyang leaflet campaign sent into North Korea by defectors, might also be contributing to North Korea's crackdown on brokers [from China or South Korea] who, "for certain fees, arrange phone calls and money transfers for defectors ... often bribing the North’s provincial security officials."

"Defectors here have been sending cash to and corresponding with their family left behind in the North via Chinese brokers, but that has stopped after Pyongyang delegated the job of monitoring defector families to a central party organ in charge of state security," the Korean Herald said.

The news outlet also reports a different average amount of money defectors are sending back home. It says that, according to a human rights group based in Seoul, six out of 10 defectors sent at least one payment back home to their families in North Korea, with the one-time average payment being $1,340 (1.62 million won). 

Despite the regime's claim that North Korean has suffered zero infections or deaths from the novel coronavirus, its people are facing harsh penalties for not wearing masks during the pandemic. Those who fail to wear masks face at least three months of “disciplinary labor” with harsher penalties for people caught sneaking into China, a country official told Radio Free Asia. 

“Residents of the border area were threatened that they would face more than a year of hard labor if they are caught secretly visiting China or having contact with Chinese without permission,” the source said. 

Although the regime claims it has no cases of the virus, the World Health Organization reports that North Korea has quarantined 25,551 people over the past few months, and more than 1,100 people in the country have been tested for the coronavirus. 

On Sunday, North Korea locked down the city of Kaesong near the border with South Korea after finding what could be the country's first official coronavirus case there, according to ABC News.

North Korea’s state-controlled Central News Agency said “a critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country” after a suspected patient returned from South Korea by illegally crossing the border last week.

North Korea, led by dictator Kim Jong-un, is ranked as the worst persecutor of Christians worldwide on Open Doors USA's World Watch List of countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has also designated North Korea as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act. 

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