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The Last Americans in North Korea: Christian Missionaries

The Last Americans in North Korea: Christian Missionaries

Chris Rice, a Christian aid worker, followed his faith last fall to North Korea. He went to check on 53 tons of donated turkey and soybeans he had helped send to orphanages in the totalitarian state.

Before Mr. Rice left, church parishioners in his home state of North Carolina, including those who normally support such charity, couldn’t help but ask: If North Korea can build the bomb, why can’t it feed its own people?

The work of Mr. Rice and other humanitarian groups has resurrected tough questions about giving aid to despot nations, a debate centered on whether assistance to the needy frees up state resources for corrupt purposes. In North Korea, the question is whether the help allows the regime to spend more money on nuclear arms that threaten the U.S. and its allies.

On the same day Mr. Rice hauled a suitcase full of medical supplies aboard the flight to Pyongyang from Beijing, President Donald Trump flew to South Korea to talk about the need for tighter sanctions.

Hobbled Help
Total U.N. humanitarian aid to North Korea has been dwindling.

Source: United Nations

“You don’t starve your own people in order to fund nuclear weapons,” Mr. Trump’s United Nations representative, Nikki Haley, told the U.N. Security Council around the time of Mr. Rice’s trip.

The international response to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear-armed long-range missiles has been to squeeze commerce and reduce foreign aid. As a result, faith-based groups, which once accounted for a small proportion of aid to North Korea, now have an outsize role.

U.N. aid has shrunk to $39 million, around a 10th of its 2001 total. A handful of U.S. Christian groups provide roughly $10 million in aid a year, public documents show. The groups navigate international sanctions and a U.S. travel ban to serve as one of the last channels of help for North Korea’s many poor, particularly its children, elderly and sick.

From Beijing, the mostly Christian aid workers board aging Russian jets bound for North Korea where they help manage medical clinics, dig wells, supply food and oversee aid programs, some decades old.

When Mr. Rice arrived in Pyongyang, he found some of his peers staying at the same hotel. One was Stephen Linton, 67 years old, from the Eugene Bell Foundation, named for his great grandfather, a Presbyterian who began Korean missionary work in 1895.

Chris Rice, a Christian aid worker for the Mennonite Central Committee, checks on a storeroom of donated soy beans in North Korea. Photo: Jennifer Deibert/MCC

Children at a North Korean orphanage eat a lunch that includes canned turkey given by the Mennonite group. Photo: Jennifer Deibert/MCC

These humanitarians, eligible for exemptions to the U.S. travel ban, are among the last Americans who engage in face-to-face work between people of the two nations, which over the past year have swung between brinkmanship and, of late, the possibility of talks between the country’s two leaders.

Christian aid workers say they are motivated by such biblical admonitions as “love your enemies.” Many say their work can foster peace through cooperation and trust-building. The groups hail from many denominations, including the Quaker-founded American Friends Service Committee, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mennonite Central Committee and the interdenominational World Vision.

Chris Rice, a Christian aid worker for the Mennonite Central Committee, checks on a storeroom of donated soy beans in North Korea, top left. Children at a North Korean orphanage eat a lunch that includes canned turkey given by the Mennonite group.

Chris Rice, a Christian aid worker for the Mennonite Central Committee, checks on a storeroom of donated soy beans in North Korea, top left. Children at a North Korean orphanage eat a lunch that includes canned turkey given by the Mennonite group. Photos: Jennifer Deibert/Mennonite Central Committee(3)

The Trump administration sees past U.S. help and engagement as a failure. The U.S. ended aid after North Korea quit disarmament talks in 2009. “Our country has been unsuccessfully dealing with North Korea for 25 years, giving billions of dollars & getting nothing,” Mr. Trump tweeted last fall.

After a flurry of diplomacy around the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea in February, the Trump administration is applying a policy of maximum pressure through sanctions while seeking to engage with North Korea through disarmament talks. If any talks bear fruit, the effectiveness of such humanitarian aid will come under even sharper scrutiny; many experts expect North Korea to request food and other assistance as part of any negotiation.

Messrs. Linton and Rice, the sons of missionaries in postwar South Korea, are among those who believe that humanitarian aid, delivering food and medicine, builds goodwill.

“Finding peace means having the courage to go talk to the enemy, and being willing to be criticized for it,” said Mr. Rice, 57. He runs a South Korea-based humanitarian program for the Mennonite Central Committee, pacifist Christians with a long history of service in dangerous places.

Mr. Linton has traveled to North Korea more than 80 times since the 1970s. He runs a program to treat multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, a widespread problem. Late last year, North Korea asked him to double the scope of the program’s work in the country, he said.

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Wall Street Journal reporters reflect on their September trip to Pyongyang, North Korea. Video/Photo: Paolo Bosonin/The Wall Street Journal

Other Christian humanitarians have turned away from North Korea. “This money is all going straight into the pockets of the regime,” said Nancy Purcell, a Philadelphia-area native who first traveled to North Korea with a Christian nonprofit in 2000. She helped distribute food produced there until concluding in 2004 that the military siphoned off donations. Aid was “prolonging the regime,” said Ms. Purcell, 68.

Some of the help, such as medicines for tuberculosis, are useful only for the sick, say Christian aid workers trying to stem North Korea’s TB problem.

Tim Peters, of Michigan, said he first traveled to North Korea to deliver food during the 1990s famine, inspired by a verse in the Book of Romans: “If your enemy hungers, feed him.” Today, Mr. Peters, 67, runs a Christian group, Helping Hands Korea, that assists North Korean defectors.

“You can’t operate freely within the bounds of a totalitarian regime like North Korea’s,” he said.

On a mission

Christian work in North Korea began around the time of two trips to Pyongyang in the early 1990s by the late evangelical leader Billy Graham. He said he was received with a bear hug from Kim Il Sung, the now-deceased founder of North Korea’s dynastic state and grandfather of Kim Jong Un.

The late U.S. evangelist Billy Graham, center, presented his book ‘Peace with God’ to the former North Korean President Kim il-Sung, right, during 1992 a visit to Pyongyang.

The late U.S. evangelist Billy Graham, center, presented his book ‘Peace with God’ to the former North Korean President Kim il-Sung, right, during 1992 a visit to Pyongyang. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The regime gave its own spin. In 2016, state media reported Mr. Graham had affirmed Kim Il Sung was akin to God, “so perfect in his ideas that North Korea didn’t need the Bible,” which the Graham organization denied was said.

North Korea made an international call for help in 1995 to combat famine and became one of world’s biggest recipients of food aid, about a million tons a year. The U.S. gave $1.3 billion in food and energy from 1995 to 2008.

Researchers now suspect that North Korea diverted much of its famine-era aid to elites and its military. Aid workers from France-based Action Against Hunger reported finding emaciated children who were seemingly left to die in bleak facilities in the late 1990s. The group pulled out in 2000. Doctors Without Borders left in 1998 after concluding the regime kept food from the neediest.

In February, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a nonsectarian, nonprofit group—founded by Bill Gates and former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, among others—said it would end grants to North Korea because of its lack of transparency. North Korea’s state media said Tuesday the decision was “extremely abnormal and inhumane.”

North Korea still badly needs food and medicine, experts said. At least 40% of North Korea’s population is undernourished, and such diseases as tuberculosis and hepatitis are rampant, according to U.N. reports. In January, Unicef said a slowdown in aid could lead to starvation for some 60,000 children.

Among the Christian aid groups is Samaritan’s Purse, run by Mr. Graham’s son, Franklin Graham. It has supplied flood relief, as well as aid to medical clinics and equipment for tuberculosis treatment centers, over the years.

The U.S. travel ban allows humanitarian workers to apply for permission on a case-by-case basis. In practice, the sanctions have made aid work more difficult: Wary of running afoul of sanctions, transport companies are leery of taking goods to the North Korea border, and banks turn down requests to transfer money there, humanitarian workers said.

While North Korea accepts Christian aid, it is no friend of Christianity. The regime sees religion as a threat and has imprisoned Christians for praying and owning a Bible. Preaching is forbidden, yet some aid workers say they talk about their beliefs in private with individuals who ask, despite the risk.

Last year, two American educators affiliated with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a Christian-funded university, were arrested. They remain in detention, and North Korea has yet to disclose any charges.

The university was founded in 2010 by James Kim, a Korea-born U.S. citizen, with $40 million raised from evangelical churches and businesses. Mr. Kim says the campus builds relationships with elite North Koreans who are otherwise taught to hate the U.S. Others say the technical and English language training may help forge the next generation of missile scientists and computer hackers.

Regime founder Kim Il Sung, who persecuted Christians, grew up in a Presbyterian home and learned to play the church organ, historians said. In Pyongyang, he built three showcase churches.

Christian aid worker Heidi Linton visited one in October. The North Korean pastor delivered a sermon about the ills of American foreign policy, then called up Ms. Linton, 53, of Black Mountain, N.C., to speak.

“We are here out of our love for Jesus, and our desire to make him known and his love known to the people of Korea,” Ms. Linton told the 60 or so congregants, mostly women.

Christian aid worker Heidi Linton during her North Korea trip in October. Photo: Christian Friends of Korea

Ms. Linton, who is related by marriage to Stephen Linton, runs Christian Friends of Korea, a nonprofit that has delivered around $90 million in aid to North Korea since 1995. In October, she traveled nearly 3,000 miles across remote provinces with a 13-person team, she said. They dug wells and dispensed medicine for hepatitis to 600 patients.

The new wells require repeat visits to maintain, she said, an uncertain prospect given the signs of tension she saw. At one meeting with local public health officials, a new propaganda poster had been taped on a window showing missiles blowing up the U.S.

Trust but verify

Last fall, the Treasury Department granted Stephen Yoon, a former California chiropractor, a humanitarian exemption from sanctions to transfer money from Christian sources to Pyongyang to complete a $3 million hospital ward for children with cerebral palsy.

Mr. Yoon moved with his wife and children to North Korea in 2009 to work with the disabled. The decision still prompts harsh questions, he said, from people who ask him, “How could I take children to such a place?”

“My answer is that for some of us, this is our life journey: to be with people who are alone,” said Mr. Yoon. In 2012, Mr. Yoon became the first U.S. citizen to pass exams for a medical Ph.D. at Kim Il Sung University.

The Yoons relocated to South Korea just before the U.S. travel ban went into effect in September, he said, but the family would like to return. In December, Mr. Yoon flew into Pyongyang to check on the hospital project.

Delivering aid to North Korea requires a leap of faith and a willingness to travel. The only way for groups to verify that programs and supplies are helping the people most in need is to see firsthand. Email and phone calls to North Korea are practically impossible.

Even trips don’t give a complete view. Visitors are always accompanied by North Korean escorts who make private interviews impossible.

Christian aid workers say they are confident their donations reach intended recipients. To deliver the food and medicine, North Korean authorities allow the workers to travel to regions otherwise off limits to foreign visitors.

Tensions with North Korea were high in November when Mr. Rice prepared for his first trip since the Sept. 1 travel ban, imposed after the death of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died last year after his imprisonment in North Korea. Mr. Rice, who joined the Mennonite program in 2014, finds recipients in North Korea and make sure help reaches them.

Aid worker Jennifer Deibert, left, shows Chris Rice a water purification device for use in North Korea. Photo: Jean Chung for The Wall Street Journal

At a North Korean soy-milk factory, Mr. Rice dug his hands into some of the tons of donated beans. He visited orphan children dining on donated turkey.

His four-person team included a farming expert. In one meeting with North Korean officials, they discussed bringing farmers to Canada to learn new techniques. “We’re trying to sow little seeds of hope in the cracks,” said Mr. Rice, who plans to return in May.

Last May, Mr. Rice brought five North Koreans to Winnipeg, Canada, to tour Mennonite farms, a rare visit outside their country. That week, North Korea test-launched a missile.

Write to John Lyons at and Jonathan Cheng at

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