Starving North Korean parents increasingly abandoning children at orphanages

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. (KCNA/Xinhua via Zuma Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korean orphanages are growing as starving parents drop off their children in the middle of the night in hopes that the kids, at least, will be able to eat, sources in the country told Radio Free Asia.

The acts of desperation are founded in part by the belief that orphanages receive supplies of food and medicine donated by the international community, despite Pyongyang’s restrictive COVID policies.

“On the morning of [Feb. 27], an employee of the orphanage in Pukchang county found a 2-year-old girl lying at the front door of the orphanage,” a resident of the county in South Pyongan province, north of Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service.

“Women who are starving to death are secretly leaving their children … at night or in the early morning, and then they disappear with no trace,” said the source. “[They know] that the international community has been sending things like food, oil, and clothing to the orphanages over the years, so the kids will at least not starve.”

North Korea has suffered from chronic food shortages since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The food situation was made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, when North Korea and China closed their border and suspended all trade. 

Although rail freight has resumed, the food shortages are still worse than they were pre-pandemic.

Dwindling foreign aid

Foreign aid has declined. North Korea received about U.S.$40 million per year in aid between 2016 and 2020 according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Financial Tracking Service. 

But COVID-19 policies that rejected outside help meant that aid decreased sharply to $14 million in 2021 and further decreased to a mere $2.3 million in 2022.

While it is not known how much of the aid was going to orphanages each year, it is reasonable to assume that they are receiving less than they were pre-pandemic.

Pukchang county, which has a population of about 140,000 people has thus seen the small orphanage’s numbers swell to about 110 children, according to the source. 

Two orphanages in the same province, in the city of Sunchon, have seen babies appear on their doorsteps almost every week, a source there told RFA.

“In the Ryonpo neighborhood where I live, they turned a company’s recreation center into an orphanage back in 2012,” the second source said. “A few days ago, there was a 3-year-old boy found crying on their doorstep.”

The source said that a ban on local travel due to COVID-19 restrictions still in place has limited many people’s ability to earn money. 

Most families in North Korea must run side businesses because salaries for government-assigned jobs are not enough to live on. A large portion of side businesses involve buying imported goods in one location, then selling them at a higher price in another.

‘Taking photos of babies’ faces’

The resulting lack of income has meant that many have had to decrease their food intake, including families with children. 

“As more and more residents abandon their young children at the orphanage, the city authorities are taking pictures of the babies’ faces and handing them over to the local safety departments to find the parents and send the babies back to their families,” the second source said.

Residents are however critical of the authorities, saying that they are not doing enough to solve the problem of people’s livelihoods to the point that people are willing to abandon their children.

Data on the number of orphaned children in North Korea is unclear, but the South Korea-based North Korean Refugees Human Rights Association estimated in 2020 that as many as 40,000 North Korean orphans had escaped the country and were living in China.

For those still in North Korea, life as an orphan is often spent performing forced labor for the state. RFA reported in November that many orphans were among a workforce of young people who state media said had “volunteered” to work in coal mines and rural farms.

The U.S. State Department accused North Korea of “the worst forms of child labor” in its report on human rights practices in the country for 2020.

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