A Dangerous Opportunity in North Korea
Dr. Bill Moore, the pastor of Southern Hills United Methodist Church in Lexington, was in North Korea May 14-29. The son of United Methodist missionaries, he is a member of a humanitarian aid group called Christian Friends of Korea. He offers a perspective on a deepening crisis.
I traveled to North Korea during the last two weeks of May as a member of a six-person delegation from a non-government organization (NGO) called Christian Friends of Korea. We flew into the capital city of Pyong Yang to confirm the arrival and proper distribution of donated goods, to deliver donors lists and greetings, and to build relationships and trust. The Board of Directors for this group, of which I am a member, is composed of former missionaries to Korea, the children of missionaries, and others with a concern to relieve the suffering and hardships of the people of this grim Communist dictatorship called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is often hard to see the suffering faces of the 23 million North Koreans hidden behind the headlines of international diplomatic struggle and nuclear intrigue. Famine, floods (two devastating events in 2007), and mismanagement have left the nation in economic ruin. Christian Friends of Korea (CFK) has been quietly working in the DPRK for 13 years, meeting some of the most basic needs of thousands of people struggling with the life-threatening, but curable disease of tuberculosis. CFK’s efforts to show love and compassion to people who continue to endure food shortages, poverty, disease, and oppression are building trust and chipping away at long-standing hostility.
North Korea is a beautiful place in May. Everything had greened up nicely. The cottonwood trees had deposited wind-blown piles of downy fluff in the roadways, blanketing the bushes and spider webs. The guest house on the banks of the Taedong River near Pyong Yang where our Christian Friends of Korea Team stayed for most of the visit had a dense backdrop of vegetation, populated by ring neck pheasant, which appeared unfazed by the foreigners nearby and sounded off regularly. The acacia trees were in full bloom.
Fording a stream is sometimes necessary to reach remote medical facilities.
As we moved through the countryside, the workers on the collective farms were transplanting rice plants into the paddy fields. This is a critical phase of life in the north, and everyone is expected to take part. Backs bent, barefooted workers move slowly across the fields. On the mud dikes of the water-filled paddies there are often patriotic slogans on placards, revolutionary red flags flying, and even sound trucks playing inspirational songs. This idyllic picture of a worker’s paradise belies a truth that is not readily apparent. The coming fall harvest, which is vital to a nation where one-third of the people suffer from malnutrition, is already in jeopardy. Previous large shipments of fertilizer from South Korea have been withheld this year for political reasons. China has pledged to fill the gap, but nothing has arrived yet. Aid workers from other countries told us that the potato crop is already stunted, and predicted that the rice crop will be twenty-five percent less this year. Even in years of good harvests, North Korea still falls about 1 million metric tons short of food, out of an estimated 5 million tons needed. This year the shortfall is expected to exceed 1.6 million metric tons. For those receiving rations, the daily government ration of grain per person was reduced from 250 grams to 150 grams in June. Uncertain food aid, coupled with poor food security (effective agricultural production) means an increase among the populace in susceptibility to disease, particularly tuberculosis, which afflicts an estimated five percent of the North Korean people. In fact, since last year, the registered cases of TB have risen from 52,000 to 100,000 cases.
This was the backdrop for our journey to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as an NGO working to provide medicine (specifically tuberculosis treatment drugs), medical equipment, farm machinery, vehicles, construction materials and food for the people of the DPRK. The needs are real, and the urgency is intensifying. The Chinese character for “crisis” is composed of two other characters: “danger” and “opportunity.” As we traveled to fourteen different medical facilities, we could see that there is a “dangerous opportunity’ to make a difference in this land, and bring hope to many lives.
Our team was a diverse, ecumenical mix of six people. Our Executive Director, Heidi Linton, grew up in Alaska, married into a famous Presbyterian missionary family, and has effectively immersed herself in the work of Christian Friends of Korea for the last 13 years. By her indomitable spirit, genuine integrity, and meticulous attention to detail for providing aid and assistance, she has endeared herself to the North Korean leaders assigned to us through the Ministry of Public Health and forged a working relationship which is highly effective. Dr. John Somerville, retired Presbyterian missionary, was our official Korean speaker on the trip. A Harvard graduate in Asian studies, Dr. Somerville spent many years teaching in South Korea, and has visited the north on 10 previous visits. Paul Moffett, a pastor at Lighthouse Christian Center in Puyallup, WA, is the great-grandson of pioneer Presbyterian missionary Samuel Moffett, who came to Pyong Yang in 1905. Lee Wheeler is an agricultural engineer from Hesston, KS, representing the Mennonite Central Committee, a CFK partner. He is a greenhouse expert who has also made 10 trips to the DPRK. Terry Smith, Heidi’s able assistant, came from Memphis, TN and now lives in Black Mountain (headquarters of CFK). I rounded out the team. I’m the son of United Methodist missionaries, James and Margaret Moore. My grandfather, Dr. Stanley Martin, was a Canadian Presbyterian medical missionary in China and Korea. I grew up in Seoul, South Korea.
Donated food at Logistics Warehouse
Our purpose in traveling to North Korea for Christian Friends of Korea was to make a “confirming” visit, checking to make sure that the supplies and equipment (more than three million dollars worth sent since January) had been properly received, inventoried and distributed; to present lists of donors to the facility directors; and to build relationships and trust with everyone with whom we had contact. We were accompanied at all times by young government officials who were both personable and efficient, and escorted us to every location. They shared with us a passion and concern for the welfare of their people. Part of this work was to visit two warehouse locations to make sure supplies were moving out to the facilities. This is important also to make way for incoming shipping containers. It is noteworthy that our North Korean counterparts in the Ministry of Public Health value the aid assistance of CFK and a similar NGO so much that they actually built a spacious warehouse just for receiving shipments to be distributed to CFK ministry sites. A forklift sent by CFK donors was in use there. The other main task of confirming was to visit the actual facilities, interview directors, staff, and patients, and assess the priorities and needs of each place. These visits were the heart of our schedule.
A typical trip to one of the hospitals or TB rest homes began with a convoy of vehicles traveling to the locations scheduled for the day. The road surface usually began with paved roads of varying quality that soon gave way to a washboard gravel road, a muddy track snaking up into the hills, or even a rocky stream bed that had to be forded. Once we arrived, we were greeted by the director, doctors, nurses, and various local officials. We would be seated around a table with refreshments provided for the visitors (strawberries, peanuts, tea), introductions would be made, the donor list presented in Korean with an explanation, and Heidi Linton would begin the process of inquiry. What is the current situation in this place? How many TB patients are there? How did the devastating floods of 2007 affect the facility and patients? What are your priorities here? Is there enough food for the patients? Local Communist party officials who attended the meetings were visibly uncomfortable about discussions of flood damage or food shortages. Furtive glances were sometimes exchanged before hospital staff would answer such questions. The stock answer: “The government provides us with food.” We knew this was often not true—some locations stopped receiving food rations in 2007.
CFK Executive Director Heidi Linton confers with the hospital staff at Sariwon.
Questions would be asked about the arrival of vitamins, health kits, bedding, laundry soap, Pedialyte, doctor’s kits, hospital beds, and TB medicine. Food shipments of canned meat, soy beans and dry vegetable soup mix were checked on. A list of donors was presented to the directors at each location. New equipment was sometimes delivered, including new electronic microscopes and a “Lab in a Suitcase,” a sophisticated package of diagnostic equipment to identify infected TB patients. Some sites had cargo tri-motorcycles to transport supplies slated for delivery. A new kind of greenhouse, which does not require an additional heat source even in frigid temperatures, was offered at each place. A tour of the facilities meant a chance to meet the patients, to inquire about their health, and to offer best wishes and prayers for swift recovery. Outside, the greenhouses, which are so important for supplementing meager government rations, would be inspected. Walking tractors and bicycles provided by CFK were noted.
One of the highlights of the journey was to see the wonderful progress that has been made in the construction of modern surgical facilities at both the North Hwangae TB Hospital in Sariwon and the South Hwangae TB Hospital in Haeju. The surgical suites, built with the expertise and direction of CFK Technical Teams, feature new anti-microbial tile on the walls, non-skid floor tiles, power conditioners and new electrical wiring, heating/AC, lighting, and new surgical equipment and supplies enabling more complicated procedures and greatly improved surgical outcomes. One patient, who had been brought to Sariwon for an operation from a TB rest home, remarked when he saw the gleaming facility, “I feel like I am cured already!” The result of the renovations is stronger confidence among patients that healing will occur, and the number of patients willing to undergo surgery has tripled. Because of the sterile conditions, post-operative infection has been greatly reduced. Eighty percent of the patients used to have post-op infections. Now it is down to 1 in 5 patients. We also saw the preparations for a similar renovation at the Kaesong Provincial Pediatric Hospital (serving 144,000 children) where the surgery area has been stripped to the bare stones in preparation for the $200,000 make-over made possible by a CFK donor. In earlier days this was a Methodist mission hospital, visited by my grandfather who installed x-ray equipment there in the early 1920’s. At Hwangju TB Rest Home construction is under way to build new facilities that will house150 or more patients. The buildings will replace two others that were destroyed in last year’s floods. They need a roof right away, followed by windows and doors. This is a critical need, and participation from United Methodist Churches would be most welcome in raising funds for this vital construction need.
Retired missionary John Somerville prays a prayer of dedication for the new operating room at Sariwon.
While there are very encouraging signs of progress at CFK projects, there are specific needs that must be immediately addressed. There is an expected shortfall in TB medicine, especially in terms of DOTS (Directly Observed Treatment Short Course) drugs which, when given under supervision, are very effective. Because of a loss of funding by the World Health Organization, CFK is being asked to provide 12,000 treatments in our regions (North and South Hwanghae and Kaesong) which will cost in excess of $245,000. In response to the deepening food crisis, two 40-foot containers of canned meat will be shipped before the end of the year in a joint effort with the Mennonite Central Committee, who generously provides $500,000 worth of this commodity to CFK projects annually.
Everywhere the CFK Team went on this confirming visit there were expressions of gratitude. When one director was asked what further assistance he needed for his facility, he exclaimed, “You have already sent a lot!” Heidi Linton responded that God in His love had provided these things. The director’s response: “Please send thanks to our Christian friends in America.”
You might be asking: what does the work of Christian Friends of Korea have to do with The United Methodist Church? It is difficult to do any kind of Christian ministry in North Korea since traditional denominational mission work is not allowed, but an effort through a non-government organization makes it possible. When needs are critical, we must find mission partners wherever we can. The mission of CFK also addresses two of the priorities coming out of General Conference: engaging ministry with the poor (preventing starvation) and making the world malaria free, AIDS-free, and tuberculosis free. Here’s a piece of good news—the US government is in the process of shipping a total of 500,000 tons of food to North Korea as a result of some movement in the nuclear negotiations. The United Nations World Food Program will distribute 400,000 tons throughout the DPRK. As a part of this initiative, on June 30 it was announced that the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) office of Food for Peace will work with 5 aid agencies to distribute 100,000 metric tons of food to 550,000 people at risk, mostly children, elderly and nursing mothers, in two North Korean provinces. The agencies involved in this effort are World Vision, Mercy Corps, Global Resource Services, Samaritan’s Purse, and Christian Friends of Korea.
A young mother with a healthy baby at Mangyodae Hospital in Pyong Yang
CFK Team, Director and staff at Songnim TB Hospital