Reflection on ‘The Hermit Kingdom’ of North Korea

Korean couple

Severe weather badly affected harvests in North Korea in the mid 90s. CRS was part of a U.S. faith-based consortium that supplied food aid to affected communities. Photo by Tom Price/CRS

The news that Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader” of North Korea died, came as a surprise to the world. For me it brought back memories of the CRS efforts to assist the people of that destitute country.

Just after returning to my office in Jakarta after lunch one day in 1996, I was handed a note informing me that a call had come in from the North Korean Embassy. As the regional director for Southeast and East Asia at the time, we had stretched ourselves to assist people in remote places such as Papua New Guinea and the Russian Far East, but North Korea was not on our map.

It was years earlier when I served in Sierra Leone, one of the few countries with Embassies from both North and South Korea, that I had first heard about the “hermit kingdom”. Our South Korean friends told us that should a North Korean happen to meet a South Korean, or an American, God forbid, they would shout and spit. Any kind of communication was absolutely out of the question. They were forbidden to speak to anyone from the West. So, it was in that context that I pondered what could this mean? I was gripped by curiosity and not a little apprehension as I returned the call.

Korean family

North Koreans faced food shortages in the mid 90s. CRS helped bring food aid to affected communities. Photo by Tom Price/CRS

The embassy’s first secretary himself answered the phone. “We’d like to come and see you”, he said.

Later, when they invited me to one of their diplomatic functions, I found myself with the Vietnamese, the Cubans, and the Malians. That was it—their circle of friends. And now CRS was added to their list.

The first secretary and his assistant arrived at our office promptly at 3:00. After the usual introductions they presented a beautiful green ceramic vase. They seemed to know CRS. “We need your help”. They then produced a letter of appeal from a Mr. Samuel, president of the North Korean Catholic Association, requesting aid. They went on to explain how the devastating floods the year before had destroyed much of their crops and millions of people were hungry. Thus began one of the most challenging, interesting and important relief efforts in the history of CRS.

Over the following years, CRS provided assistance in the form of food aid, in partnership with a handful of other U.S. relief agencies, and medical supplies with the Vatican and protestant groups. Caritas International also set up a unit in Caritas Hong Kong for outreach to China and North Korea. CRS delegates visited North Korea and we were able to see for ourselves the desperate and pervasive poverty throughout the country. The treatment we received was always cordial but tightly controlled. We could not leave the hotel or meet anyone without a “minder”.

On one visit I spent a week as part of a negotiating team to work out the terms of a 100,000-ton food aid program. It was the most bizarre experience of my life. After a day of visiting monuments extolling the “Great Leader”, Kim Il Sung, the negotiations would start, often late in the evening and sometimes they would last through the night. Every tactic was employed, from wining and dining us to shouting accusations and table pounding. After a day and night of intense discussions, agreements on some of our points had been reached. Then we’d start the next day only to learn that approvals had not been granted and we needed to start all over again on those points. Talk about patience!

But what remains foremost in my mind was the desperation of the people we met in the countryside. Whole towns without electricity, factories with no signs of life, plastic sheets used as window coverings in the bitter cold of winter, empty roads, peasants in the fields with donkeys and carts, local TB clinic doctors and nurses with only herbs as medicine, and no heat anywhere outside the capitol.

North Korea is truly a “hermit kingdom”. Whatever we may think of their politics, the fact is that the people are isolated and most certainly the poorest of the poor economically and otherwise. CRS and our Catholic partners Caritas Korea (of South Korea) and Caritas Germany continue to reach out to the people of the north and support vaccination campaigns and TB programs.

Let’s pray that the change in leadership in that country will bring about an easing of tensions and be a time of hope for the people. I’m proud that over the past 15 years CRS has quietly nurtured that dialogue and sought to find ways to give sustenance and hope to Jesus in disguise.

Jim DeHarpporte is regional director for CRS West. He is based in San Diego, CA.

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