Interview: COVID-19 in North Korea

North Korean escapee Timothy sat down with Open Doors to talk about the impact of COVID-19 on the persecuted church.


What is medical care like in North Korea in normal times?

You can see a doctor for free, but you have to pay for your medication. The elite members of society can get good treatment and medications immediately, but ordinary people usually have to go to the market to get medicines that have been smuggled from China. They are very expensive for ordinary citizens. The doctor may also suggest a herbal medicine you can try for a cure.

How many people in North Korea have had COVID-19?

The North Korean authorities claim there haven’t been any infections in the country, but that is unlikely. Tens of thousands of people have been quarantined – there are 24 quarantine facilities and many people have been quarantined at home.

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What steps has North Korea taken to stop the spread of COVID-19?

North Korea has taken similar steps to other countries. Schools and markets were closed, although they have reopened since the summer. Those who don’t have symptoms are now going to work but must wear masks. Some big events have been cancelled, such as the Pyongyang marathon, but other big events, such as the Workers Party Congress, have gone ahead.

One of the strongest changes North Korea has made to prevent the spread of COVID is to completely shut down the border with China. This has decreased imports and exports radically, as well as making it difficult for smugglers to bring in supplies or information. The regime ordered soldiers to shoot immediately if anyone crosses the border during a lockdown, which has also made it difficult for those trying to escape the country. North Korean escapees’ arrival in South Korea reached its lowest rate for 20 years in 2020.

How has life for normal North Koreans been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Very badly. Closing the border has significantly reduced the amount of food and basic items coming from outside the country. This means the little food available inside the country has become much more expensive – sometimes the price has quadrupled.

Many families can’t afford to feed themselves because of this, and millions of people are starving. The UN estimates that 40 per cent of the total population need urgent food aid. Farmers may be able to sustain themselves with their last grains until the Spring, but then follows ‘Borigogae’, the time after the last of the food harvested in Autumn runs out, and people are waiting for the first grains to be harvested again in April-May.

Has North Korea received any help from the international community in fighting the spread of COVID-19?

They have received some support, such as donations of PPE, from international NGOs. But it is far from what millions of North Korean people urgently need – food and medicines. The PPE and other medical kits that have arrived have been given to the elites and their families so far.

Will North Korea be getting the vaccine against COVID-19?

North Korea has applied to be a part of the COVAX program for the distribution of vaccines, where donations from richer countries are helping to provide vaccines for poorer countries. They have been allocated nearly two million doses by the program initially, but North Korea has a population of over 25 million people – they will need a lot more.

How have Christians in North Korea responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Despite the incredible challenges believers in North Korea have met in the last year, facing sickness and starvation on top of persecution, Christians in North Korea have held on to their faith. One believer has written from inside the country saying, “We have been through many challenges this year. None of the challenges would stop our solemn march to the spiritual mountaintop. We remember the great consideration from all the brothers and sisters around the world. We have dedicated our lives again to the ministry of the underground church and to the succession of the precious faith of our ancestors. We would like to express our great gratitude towards all of you who cared for us, and we pray that God’s grace and blessings will be poured upon you.”

Their work in the darkness is obedience and faith in God, despite being unable to predict what will come in the future.

How have Open Doors been able to help North Korean believers during the COVID-19 pandemic?

By the grace of God, Open Doors has been able to continue providing relief aid to North Korean believers, such as food and medicines, through our networks in China, although it was even more difficult than usual in 2020. Our safehouses in China have also continued to provide help to the few people who have managed to escape North Korea in the last year.

Open Doors radio broadcasts into North Korea have also been able to continue, giving great comfort to believers as well as information about the outside world. They find peace and encouragement from these programs. It was my own experience as well when I was in North Korea - I desperately waited for a specific foreign radio program which usually airs from China early in the morning when everyone is in bed.

None of this would be possible without your support and prayers.

How can I help persecuted believers in North Korea as the pandemic continues?

Please share the stories of our North Korean brothers and sisters with your families, friends, churches, colleagues, and on social media. We need to create a very loud conversation about what is happening to them so they aren’t forgotten.

Please continue to support the work of Open Doors if you are able to.

And please pray. I see a picture of a cloud of our prayers, wrapping up the whole of North Korea, and in the middle, there is a big cross that shines, pushing away the darkness.

How can we pray for North Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic?

· Please continue to pray for the protection of the secret believers in North Korea – from persecution, and also from covid-19. Pray for their encouragement, and that God will provide for their needs.

· Pray for more ‘open doors’ to reach out to North Korean brothers and sisters in 2021. Pray for wisdom and protection for Open Doors workers as they carry out their dangerous work.

· Pray for the North Korean leaders’ hearts. Let them see, feel, and recognize what their main priorities should be for the people of North Korea in 2021.


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