As the leaders of North Korea and the United States are scheduled to meet in Vietnam for a second round of denuclearisation talks, North Koreans continue to flee human rights abuses and increasing food shortages.
As with the first round of talks, the conditions that make North Korea the toughest place on earth for Christians won’t be up for discussion.
Last year, 1,137 North Koreans arrived in South Korea, nearly the same number as in 2017, a provisional report by Seoul’s Ministry of Unification says.
“The new data points to roughly consistent numbers of defections in recent years, following a marked drop after Kim Jong-Un came to power in 2011,” reported news service NK News.
The report does not include the number of people who tried and failed to leave North Korea, but it does show that an increasing number crossing the border is female.
Last year 85% of defectors were women, “reflecting the fact that women usually have more freedom of movement if they are not expected to appear at a set workplace,” according to Thomas Muller, analyst for the World Watch Research unit of religious freedom watchdog Open Doors.
“More worrying for the regime are the high-profile defections in recent months, such as a soldier crossing the heavily militarized border with the South, or the still unconfirmed defection of the acting ambassador to Italy together with his family,” he said.
North Korea’s president is in Hanoi, Vietnam, this week for a second meeting with US President Donald Trump. The two are scheduled to meet tomorrow, 27 February, to talk about denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. As at their first summit in June last year, North Korea’s human rights record is not part of the agenda.
Meanwhile the situation for Christians has grown worse, reported Open Doors. The organisation said there were reports of “an increased number of arrests and abductions of South Korean and Chinese Korean missionaries in China, the strengthened border control with harsher punishment for North Korean citizens who are repatriated from China, and increased efforts by the North Korean government to eliminate all channels for spreading the Christian faith”.
For almost two decades North Korea has topped Open Doors’ World Watch List of 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.
There are approximately 300,000 Christians in the country, with almost a quarter of them (70,000) being held in prisons and labour camps, where they face “unimaginable torture, inhumane and degrading treatment purely because of their faith”, Zoe Smith, the organisation’s Head of Advocacy in UK & Ireland, said in June.
“Life [in North Korea] is very rough. Frequent food shortages, power cuts, typhoons, floods and other natural disasters; just some of the challenges North Koreans still have to deal with. Add to that gross human rights violations, total lack of freedom, information censorship, propaganda and the ongoing political mismanagement and you can see why living in North Korea is like living in Orwell’s 1984,” a Christian human rights advocate who escaped from North Korea and now lives in the UK, told World Watch Monitor last year, which marked the country’s 70th birthday.
Appeal for food aid
Last week, leading up to the meeting in Hanoi, North Korea appealed for food aid to the United Nations “after droughts and floods led to a poor harvest, worsening the impact of UN sanctions”, reported the Guardian.
The country has faced sanctions since 2006 as the international community has tried to stop Pyongyang to further develop its nuclear weapon arsenal.
In an undated memo, the regime said an ‘urgent response’ was needed as it would have to cut daily rations from January onwards.
North Korea has tried to find ways to survive the sanctions, partly by infiltrating Chinese and South Korean churches in China, as reported by the South Korean based news service Daily NK.
While North Korean agents gather intelligence and identify potential defectors, they scout business opportunities too. “For the agents, the best place to find out more information about South Korea or to start a business endeavor with South Koreans is in churches attended by large numbers of South Korean business people,” according to the news site.