“We were always so hungry and resorted to eating grass in spring,” recalled Kim, who served four years in a North Korean labor camp on treason charges.
“When someone died, fellow prisoners delayed reporting his death to the authorities so that they could eat his allocated breakfast.”
Kim represents thousands of North Koreans who have fled that country to escape famine and political repression. Many who sought refuge in China, like Kim, are returned to North Korea and detained in labor camps, where food is scarce and even taken away as punishment if prisoners are caught talking to each other.
Horrific famine in North Korea has led to starvation, which in turn has led many people to do something they otherwise wouldn’t: steal food to feed their families. And that has cost some their lives.
Amnesty International reported earlier this year that starving North Koreans have been publicly executed for stealing food, while others have died of malnutrition in labor camps. The North Korean government has long used food as a tool to punish perceived political opponents and reward those it believes to be loyal.
One Amnesty International researcher reported that “public notices advertised the executions, and schoolchildren were forced to watch the shootings or hangings.”
Who are the real thieves here?
Since the collapse of its state-run farming industry in the mid-1990s, North Korea has relied on foreign aid to feed its people. The global community has harshly criticized the North Korean government for not allowing foreign agencies to monitor food distribution to ensure that it is equitable.
People so desperate to feed their families that they resort to stealing are not only a world away in North Korea. They are as close as our own cities and towns.
A Wal-Mart employee in northwest Indiana last year was charged with stealing more than $1,000 worth of food from the store during a particularly hard time for her family. She confessed she had been stealing food for about a year because her husband had lost his job and they didn’t have enough money to live.
How far would you go to feed your children or grandchildren, or your elderly parents?
It’s unlikely that we will ever be faced with this dilemma. But the fact that anyone is becomes not just their problem, but ours. All are our neighbors, according to Jesus.
We may never have stolen something that belonged to someone else. But we are all guilty of carelessly using more than we need, selfishly hoarding what we have and failing to speak and act on behalf of those whose voices have been silenced by their poverty and powerlessness.
Let’s not steal their hope and futures too.
We honor God’s prohibition against stealing not just by refraining from taking others’ possessions.
We also honor it when we do everything we can to enhance the life of our global community and ensure a meaningful existence for everyone.
Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources.