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

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.