From hand to hand to hand: The journey to North Korea

This piece by Julie Bell, a senior writer and editor for MCC, was originally published by MCC Canada on December 2, 2017.  We share this piece again in our Ottawa Notebook in light of the international summit Canada is hosting this week on North Korea.

PYONGYANG, DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea) – It’s been a long trek for these eight small bags of medical supplies. They have been packed and re-packed, crossed an ocean, passed through three countries and numerous airport security checks.

On this day the bags have reached their destination – a small medical clinic on a farm near Pyongyang.

North Korea story 2

Julie Bell, MCC Canada senior writer and Chris Rice, MCC representative for Northeast Asia, with medical staff at clinic near Pyongyang. MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

As I watch my MCC colleague, Chris Rice, hand one of the bags to the medical staff, I am humbled by the significance of this small gesture. Rice and I, and two of our MCC colleagues, are in DPRK at a time when tensions between this country and other parts of the world are running high. On this day, U.S. president Donald Trump is in the region and most people, including the people of DPRK, are aware of that.

And yet, the story of how the medical kits came to be is what matters most in this moment. Through translation, we tell the medical staff we have come to DPRK to visit some of the projects supported by MCC; including providing canned meat and soybean products to orphanages and schools and agricultural support on their farm. But their faces light up when we tell them that it was a conversation during a previous visit to the farm that prompted a collaboration of people around the world.

North Korea story 3

A farm near Pyongyang, DPRK, where MCC has provided agricultural support. MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

During that visit, medical staff told MCC about accidents on the farm – everything from cuts and scrapes to sprains and broken bones. Word of the need for medical supplies travelled through MCC’s regional office in South Korea and on to MCC offices in Canada and the U.S. We decided to put together medical kits and consulted with medical experts, both in and outside MCC, on what the kits should contain. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we were able to buy the supplies and they were delivered to our material resources warehouse in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

That’s where Natalie Gulenchyn, a long-time volunteer at the resource centre got involved.  She cut the fabric and sewed the bags, complete with MCC’s iconic dove logo.

North Korea story 4

Natalie Gulenchyn, who is in her eighties and volunteers at MCC’s material resources warehouse in Winnipeg sewed the medical kit bags that were transported to DPRK. MCC photo/Rachel Bergen

Everything was packed into a piece of luggage, which travelled with me from Winnipeg to Beijing, China.

In Beijing, we checked to make sure everything was okay and re-packed the luggage.

The luggage crossed its last border when we travelled to Pyongyang in DPRK. In yet another hotel room, we moved the supplies – from bandages to surgical tape and disposable gloves – into the eight bags lovingly sewn by Natalie.

North Korea story

Julie Bell, MCC Canada senior writer and Chris Rice, MCC representative for Northeast Asia, along with medical staff at a farm clinic near Pyongyang, DPRK. MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

Now, as the nurses and a doctor at the clinic thank us for the supplies, I am so grateful for all the hands and hearts involved in bringing these simple gifts here. Donors, volunteers, MCC workers and their families – these people made it happen.

On this day, the hostilities and harsh rhetoric of current times are irrelevant. I think about the many references in the Bible to “do the work of God’s hands.” The call to carry gifts of comfort and words of peace is the only truth that matters.


Love in the time of sanctions

This reflection is written by Jacob Greaser, who recently completed an internship with the MCC U.S.’Washington office, focusing on U.S. foreign policy.  It originally appeared on Third Way Cafe. For information on Canada’s relationship with the DPRK, click here.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) is probably one of the most mysterious and least visited places in the world for North Americans. Even for many U.S. policymakers, DPRK is often seen through a political cloud of fear and presented as an unknowable and unpredictable enemy. For the U.S. government, the label of “enemy” usually leads to punitive measures such as sanctions. For Christians, the label of “enemy” should mean something quite different.

Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) may seem to be a meaningless phrase in the midst of political complexity, but it is an important perspective that is often missing from U.S. policy. In fact, there are more open avenues for peacebuilding in DPRK than many people realize. DPRK has been placed under increasingly strict sanctions by the U.S., but humanitarian assistance is still permitted and needed. In the recent flurry of policies directed at the DPRK government, it is important not to ignore cries for help from vulnerable citizens inside DPRK.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), one of just a few organizations providing humanitarian aid in DPRK, assists individuals with tuberculosis and provides orphanages with food and other material resources. MCC heeds Christ’s call to address the needs of the most vulnerable in society and believes this applies everywhere, including DPRK. Over 20 years of working in DPRK, MCC has been allowed access to verify that our resources get to those vulnerable people. Through MCC’s commitment to serving vulnerable people everywhere, MCC has the rare opportunity to work and build relationships with people in DPRK.


These children at the South Pyongan Kindergarten Orphanage in Pyongsong, DPRK receive soya milk made from soybeans provided by MCC. MCC photo/Rachelyn Ritchie

The picture that is painted of DPRK as a repressive, secretive country often leads people to forget that DPRK allows humanitarian workers and even tourists into parts of the country. By working in DPRK, MCC is able to challenge assumptions that engagement with DPRK is impossible and shows that some level of trust can be built through consistent engagement over 20 years. Even though the relationship between the U.S. and DPRK governments is tense right now, MCC finds hope in the relationships it has built with partners in DPRK and sees relationships on that small scale as one potential path towards a larger dialogue.

MCC’s commitment to vulnerable people looks beyond the political rhetoric to love our enemies. This ultimately opens up spaces for relationship building and ongoing dialogue. While both governments frequently blame the other for escalation and refusing engagement, this destructive cycle of blame denies all possibility of meaningful engagement or understanding. MCC is able to challenge the narrative of DPRK as unreachable through the individual relationships it has built and to provide an example of small scale engagement.

Eventually, small examples of love can open the door for large acts of peace.


Prayer for the Korean Peninsula

by Kathi Suderman, MCC Representative for North East Asia

God who knows all history,
hear our prayer;
For an identity shaped by the shame of occupation,
hear our prayer;
For a land still cringing from the rape of a war waged more than six decades ago,
hear our prayer;
For bodies that toiled to rebuild and recover,
hear our prayer;
For the painful separation of sisters and brothers,
hear our prayer;
For stubborn governments unable to hear one another and negotiate,
hear our prayer;
For those that deny responsibility,
hear our prayer;
For an entire world that continues to provoke and live with hate,
hear our prayer;
For the voices that call for and take steps towards peace and reconciliation;
hear our prayer.
Grant us your church a renewed vision;
hear our prayer.

Brief Context:

Arch of Reunification, Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The Korean Peninsula has at times in history been ruled by Korean dynasties and at other times by the Japanese as well as the Chinese.   In more recent history, it’s existed as a divided country.

At the end of World War II, the Allies divided Korea into two countries separated at the 38th parallel.  Analysts refer to this point as the start of tensions that continue to this day, with the former USSR lending support to the northern part of the country to become a communist state and the U.S. supporting the southern part of the country in its anti-communist efforts.  The Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) were formally established in 1948.  Both sides desired to reunify Korea but on their own terms, resulting in war on the peninsula from 1950-1953.  The war is known as “The Forgotten War” by Americans, as the “6-2-5 Upheaval” by South Koreans (referring to the date the war began, June 25 in 1950), as the “Fatherland Liberation War” by North Koreans, and as the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea” by China, which stepped in to assist the North during the war.

Kathi Suderman with friends

Kathi Suderman with friends.

In 1953 peace negotiations resulted in the formation of a Demilitarized Zone between the two countries as well as an armistice agreement made between the UN command (led by the U.S.) and North Korea and the People’s Republic of China.  South Korea was not part of the agreement and to this day a peace treaty has not been signed.  Agreements made in the armistice agreement, namely to keep the peninsula nuclear-free, to eliminate foreign troops from the peninsula, and to sign a peace treaty within three months of signing, have been violated by one or the other or in some cases both sides of the conflict, creating tensions that have ebbed and flowed time and time again.  Though the Chinese did withdraw troops almost immediately, the U.S. to this day maintains a military presence in South Korea, with roughly 28,000 troops stationed.  The U.S. introduced nuclear weapons to the south, but later removed them when a non-nuclear pact was signed by the two Koreas.  In subsequent years the north has developed nuclear capabilities, contrary to the pact and subsequent agreements, as a response to the U.S.’s continued support of the south and in fear of perceived threat.  Annual South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises conducted each year in the disputed waters off the coast of North Korea continue to incite responses from North Korea.  This year, which marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice agreement, has been no exception.

Who are the real enemies?

Last month I had the opportunity to accompany Rod and Kathi Suderman, MCC’s Northeast Asia representatives, on program monitoring trips to the Republic of Korea (ROK, also known as South Korea) and the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea).

MCC’s partnerships in both countries are intended to further the prospects for peace on the Korean peninsula. While open hostilities ended with the signing of a cease-fire or armistice agreement in 1953, the ROK and DPRK technically remain at war with each other.

The classic images of this stalemate are often taken from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates troops on either side of the 38th parallel. After visiting an observation post on the southern side of the border, it was clear that the ROK is well-prepared for an attack.

Indeed, a strong military presence was noticeable in the south, whether it was helicopters buzzing overhead in the Seoul suburb of Deokso, or convoys of troop carriers on the streets in the city of Chuncheon. I didn’t encounter any of the 28,000 U.S. troops currently stationed on 15 military bases, although the large monument to the Korean War right across the street from the Korea Anabaptist Centre was hard to miss.

To be sure, these preparations do not compare in societal impact to the “Military First” policy of the DPRK, a policy that directs national resources to the army before other priorities are addressed. However, the ROK also devotes a significant level of resources to its military. Two years of military service is compulsory, and alternative service for conscientious objectors is not an option.

What was even more striking to me was the way that conversations on both sides of the border emphasized the regional nature of the conflict, and seemed to downplay the extent to which there was direct hostility between the two Koreas. For example, in the DPRK, the forces of “imperialism” were consistently named as the greatest threat or danger, both in the past and the present. As one government official put it, “We love peace, and we love our sovereignty.” Furthermore, there seemed to be little fear of a nuclear attack in the ROK. In the words of one church leader, “The nuclear issue is not our issue. It is intended for other targets.”

This is not to minimize the potential for conflict between the north and south. Yet it does offer a reminder that peace—not to mention reunification—will require more than a significant breakthrough between the governments in Seoul and Pyongyang. Given that the strategic interests of global powers such as the United States and China may be well-served by maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula, addressing this conflict will require changes on the part of all the regional actors.

What does this mean for MCC and for Canadians, given that our country is not a global power? Perhaps it is a reminder that isolation breeds misunderstanding in both directions.

After experiencing the lack of contact with the outside world that is the normal state of affairs for people within the DPRK, it is not surprising that their perspectives on the world would be shaped by government propaganda to the extent that they are. Given the lack of direct exposure that Canadians (and South Koreans) have to life in the DPRK, it is also not surprising that our views would be shaped by misunderstandings and, in some cases, manipulations.

While we cannot control the DPRK government’s willingness to engage the outside world, we can continue to take advantage of rare opportunities for people-to-people contact made possible by MCC’s modest program initiatives. This is why current service opportunities such as teaching English or supporting conservation agriculture projects are so important. Perhaps in the long term this may make it possible for MCC to facilitate broader connections.

The risks posed by misunderstandings are also why it is important that the Government of Canada rely on information from those with on-the-ground experience in the DPRK, whether they are United Nations personnel, diplomats from other governments, or Canadian NGOs. Despite our country’s role in the Korean War, and despite our government’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric toward their country in recent years, our hosts in the DPRK insisted that Canada was well-positioned to play a more constructive role.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director