North Korea (MNN) — United States sanctions have caused some NGOs such as Fida International to pull their aid efforts from North Korea. At first, that sounds like fewer people getting fed, but Eric Foley of Voice of the Martyrs Korea says it’s more complicated than that.
In fact, these sanctions could leave to much-needed reassessment.
Earning Your Way Out of Starvation
North Korea has traditionally kept a very small list of what organizations can bring aid into the country, especially when it comes to Christians. Fida International, a Finnish aid provider, was near the top of that list, and their retraction will have repercussions on many North Korean aid organization.
But Voice of the Martyrs Korea has been discouraging Fida from cooperating with the North Korean government for years so far. Why?
“Because of the fact that it gives the North Korean government legitimacy as being the representative of the people of North Korea.”
“When food aid is provided through the North Korean government, there are restrictions on who that food is provided to.” Foley says. “Food aid is provided to people who are considered loyal and useful to the North Korean government. All North Korean citizens have a classification… it’s a rating, almost a matrix of their of how their loyalty and usefulness to the government is rated.”
In other words, when aid efforts work through the government, the North Korean regime gets to pick and choose who eats and who doesn’t. It doesn’t matter if someone is starving; if they haven’t done enough to endorse the government, no food will reach their table.
“When we see North Koreans starving, it’s not because there is a lack of food, it’s because the North Korean government has made a conscious decision not to feed people that it considers to be disloyal or not useful,” Foley says. “Our strongest encouragement for Christian organizations has been ‘Don’t provide aid to the North Korean government that only reinforces their classification That says to be a human being means that you’re loyal and useful to government.’”
The good news for organizations like Fida is that there are already networks in place that can support North Koreans who are actually starving.
“It’s important to note that 80% of North Korean defectors in South Korea have regular monthly contact with their relatives inside of North Korea,” Foley says. “Monthly contact doesn’t mean just they’re writing a letter home, it means that they’re sending money and they’re sending other resources. In fact, the reason why North Korean defectors leave North Korea in the first place is not because they’re seeking more political freedom or freedom of choice; it’s because they’re trying to support their families.”
Foley argues that historically, governments aren’t usually the most efficient providers of aid. Instead, the Church has proven an effective and expansive network, and that’s true here, too.
“[There are] 34,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea and literally hundreds of thousands of North Korean defectors, refugees, and workers in China, Russia, Mongolia, Southeast Asia,” Foley says. “It’s not even a hypothetical situation. There are organizations providing all kinds of aid from medicines to food to financial resources inside of North Korea by bypassing the North Korean government.”
These other avenues aren’t just a different option; they’re a more effective route.
“Even if people were to say ‘Ah, if we provide aid directly through other channels like churches, North Korean defector Christian groups and things like that, that only a smaller amount of aid can be provided,’ our contention would be that the amount of aid provided is still much greater than reaching the common people than that provided by the North Korean government.”
So are US sanctions a good or bad thing? At the very least, Foley thinks they’re starting an important conversation.
“Sanctions have made it so that aid organizations have to comply with certain standards that weren’t in place before,” he explains. “They were created because the aid that was being provided wasn’t reaching the people who needed it the most.”
Foley says politics and exaggeration can confuse the conversation and keep aid groups from being as most effective.
“We should be very careful when we hear the stories on the news that say there is a massive food shortage in North Korea,” he explains. “Experts of many different political backgrounds agree that those statements are really more propaganda-driven than true. The truth is that there are natural ebbs and flows in food production in North Korea, and overall, the situation is not nearly as severe as it is often portrayed in the media.”
“As a result of that, instead of being in crisis mode, where we say, ‘Let’s do anything we can to help any way we can,’ we’re at a point where we need to make good decisions, informed decisions, and the best people who can guide us in those decisions are North Koreans themselves who have created networks to be able to reach their family members and other ordinary North Korean people who have been excluded categorically from the North Korean government’s food distribution.”
What the Church Can Do
So where do believers enter the conversation? North Korea regularly tops the World Watch List of countries where persecution against Christians is toughest. In other words, Christians are often counted low when it comes to loyalty and thus are less likely to be fed by the government.
It’s also worth noting that many of the avenues into North Korea have been set up by Christians, which means Bibles and other Christian resources can reach believers still in North Korea.
Pray for wisdom for aid organizations deciding how to move forward.
“Right now we’re at a pivotal point in the decision-making process of how Christians are going to engage with North Korea, and the sanctions, wherever people stand on the political issue, are forcing churches to re-examine how they’ll participate,” Foley says.
Your prayer can make all the difference as the Church decides how to proceed.
“First of all, let’s pray for God to open our eyes to his network and to provide aid to his people his way, rather than doing it the way that governments provide. Second of all, let’s pray that God will continue to strengthen these networks.”
At the end of the day, what sounds like an aid crisis could actually be an opportunity for reevaluation.
“I’m reminded in the Bible… of when a battle was about to take place and a servant said, ‘Wow, we, we seem to be badly outnumbered.’ But the prophet could say, ‘Lord, open his eyes’ and he could see then that the Lord’s people actually exceeded by far the number of the soldiers of the enemy”
“I like to think that the same thing is true here.”
Header photo courtesy of Voice of the Martyrs Korea.