CHRISTIANS from North Korea who escaped into China are smuggling “holy rice” back across the border to those who are starving, as food supplies in North Korea are believed to be close to catastrophic collapse.
The tradition of holy rice — setting aside the last bowl of rice for those in need — was renewed during the Great Famine of the 1990s in North Korea, during which an estimated three million people died.
Christians who escaped and are now living in China are risking their lives again to smuggle rice into North Korea, where Christians are heavily persecuted, Timothy Cho, who fled the country 17 years ago, reports.
North Korea is the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian, according to the World Wide Watch List of Christian persecution, which is published each year by the charity Open Doors. It says that the discovery that someone is a Christian means either immediate death or incarceration in a labour camp, from which few return. Despite this, the charity estimates that there are 400,000 Christians in North Korea, up to 70,000 of whom are in labour camps.
Mr Cho, who works for Open Doors and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for North Korea, said that he and others who had escaped had heard from contacts inside the country how desperate the situation currently was. Foreign media are banned there.
The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, has warned of severe food shortages — an unusual move for the secretive leader. He made the comments last month, and also told citizens to prepare for the “worst ever outcome”.
Mr Cho said: “It was very unusual for Kim Jong-un to publicly say this. The Kim family are treated like gods in North Korea, and rarely admit to problems or mistakes. It is a sign of how serious the situation is inside North Korea.”
A report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said that the country has an 860,000-tonne food shortfall, the full effects of which will be felt from next month.
Shortages have been caused by severe storms, a fertiliser shortage, economic sanctions, and Covid restrictions that make it even harder to get aid into the country. Decades of deforestation since the famine of the 1990s have made flooding worse and reduced harvests.
Little is known of the scale of Covid in the country, as anyone with symptoms is removed and put into quarantine; some were dying there for lack of food or medicine, Mr Cho said. Officially, North Korea has no Covid cases, and it has repeatedly refused the offer of vaccines from other countries, including Russia.
Mr Cho said that civilians in North Korea had been facing hunger for decades, but the current food crisis was more severe.
“I have seen starvation and hunger from my first day at primary school. At the moment, North Korea is not in the same situation as the 1990s, but I fear, if the situation continues, it is inevitable it will end up there.
“Christians are willing to share what little they have, and the holy rice that is smuggled into North Korea is shared with their neighbours. I ask for prayer from Christians around the world for their persecuted brothers in North Korea.”