COVID hits North Korean refugees, labour camps

By Stephen Cauchi

October 19 2020Although North Korea has reported zero COVID-19 cases, it is likely to be rife throughout the country and especially in the labour camps for prisoners, according to the mission for persecuted Christians, Open Doors.

The resulting COVID-19 security crackdown has meant Christians and others suffering political persecution have been unable to flee the country.

“Despite the fact that North Korea continues to claim that not one case of COVID-19 has been detected in the country, according to the World Health Organisation at least 25,551 people have been quarantined in the last few months,” said a statement from Open Doors.

“The high number of people who have been quarantined shows the country has been in a great fight against the virus.”

James Kozina, from the Open Doors Church Engagement team in Queensland, told TMA that the actual numbers in quarantine were “probably much higher”.

A COVID-19 outbreak in North Korea would be “significant”, he said.

According to an Open Doors database, “North Korea claims it does not have a single coronavirus case in the entire country. But this claim is almost certainly untrue.

“The United States has noticed that there has been very little military activity in North Korea, a rarity for the dictatorship. This is likely due to coronavirus infections and preventative measures.

“And one report suggests almost 200 soldiers died after showing symptoms similar to those who suffer from the coronavirus.”

A leader of Open Doors’ North Korea team who works with North Korean refugees in China said the health system in the country was “almost non-existent”.

“Hospitals are barely functioning, there are few doctors and there’s a huge shortage of medicines. People who are sick buy unlabelled medicines on the black market from people who don’t have a medical background.”

The North Korean healthcare system is ill-equipped for the COVID-19 pandemic according to Open Doors. Image: Wikimedia Creative Commons

Many North Koreans have a weak immune system, he said. “Most people have gone through periods of severe malnourishment. A viral epidemic would be disastrous for them … North Korea doesn’t have the means to help its citizens if there is a major outbreak.”

North Korea, with a population of 25 million, has around 200,000 citizens in labour camps.

“Our sources would also say that you’re looking at up to 70,000 Christians in hard labour camps,” said Mr Kozina.

“If North Korea has a COVID-19 outbreak in those conditions, it would be catastrophic.”

Recent reports included 26 women detained in a three-by-three metre cell and six women dying in detention for possessing a Bible, said Mr Kozina.

Open Doors and media reports have reported that increased security has made it harder than ever for North Korean refugees to escape.

Between April and June 2019, 320 refugees fled to South Korea, said the reports. In 2020, for the same period, the number of those who made it across the border in amounted to only 12.

“According to the Ministry of Unification in South Korea, these numbers are the lowest ever,” said Open Doors.

The UK’s Financial Times reported that the underground network that assists North Korean defectors “has been almost unable to operate amidst strict controls implemented to stop the virus”. Defection attempts have been suspended as a result.

The paper noted that defection rates had been declining already, due to increased security in both North Korea and China.

North Korea has the highest level of Christian persecution in the world, according to Open Doors.

“North Korea has been the most dangerous place to follow Jesus since 2002,” said the Open Doors statement. “Believers face violence and extreme levels of pressure in all areas of life. If North Korean Christians are discovered, not only are they deported to labour camps as political criminals, or even killed on the spot, their families share the same fate.

“In 2019 there was a crackdown on defectors, including Christians. Authorities raided homes, torturing and killing many believers.”

Mr Kozina said that Christians were considered “the absolute bottom of the barrel” in the country.

“You’ve got a government that is obsessed with self-preservation and self-deification,” he said. The leaders “are presented as deities”.

But despite the persecution, “there is a thriving underground church of 300,000 people. I think it’s really important to celebrate that fact.”

Open Doors provided thousands of North Korean Christians with food, medicine, clothes, books, and other Christian material, he said. Christian radio programs were also broadcast into the country.

And when Christians do successfully cross the border into China, “we’ve got a network of safe houses and underground churches that support them and sustain them”.

Globally, Christian persecution was increasing due to the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

In a number of south-east Asian countries, he said, “we are seeing Christian nurses being sent to the (COVID-19) frontlines because of their faith”.

Open Doors Church Engagement Manager Elly Hunter told TMA there had been “incredible testimonies” from North Korean Christians who had escaped the country from labour camps.

“Their testimonies … the things they’ve endured, how Jesus was able to lead them and guide them in how to escape,” she said.

“I was reading a story recently of this woman who we call Marie and her grandmother was a secret believer. She would hear her grandmother praying in secret. And that is actually how she came to the Lord.”

These inspirational stories should help Australian Christians be “bolder and more courageous” in their faith, she said. 

“I think that is one of the most important messages of the persecuted church is actually learning from their lives and the lessons that they’ve learnt in following Jesus.”

Mr Kozina urged three main prayer points for North Korea: the urgent need for food and water; strength for those who are in labour camps; and for leaders of North Korea to have a revelation of Jesus.