DPRK visitors to Canada build connections with MCC

AKRON, Pa. – Two men from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) visited Canada from March 7 to 17, sampling Canada’s frigid winter weather, Mennonite history and hospitality, a smorgasbord of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) programs and even tasting made-in-Canada kimchee, a staple Korean side dish of preserved cabbage.

Kim Chol Su, executive director of the Korea Canada Cooperation Agency (KCCA), which facilitates much of MCC’s work in the DPRK, also known to people outside the country as North Korea, and Ri Il Jun, an officer of the agency, were hosted at five MCC offices in Canada.

Their tour began in the east, visiting the MCC Canada Ottawa Office, meeting a member of Parliament and sitting in on a House of Commons question-and-answer session. They proceeded west to MCC Ontario offices in Kitchener/Waterloo, stopping to see a thrift shop, a Ten Thousand Villages store, and an MCC Ontario program with homeless women.

Then it was on to Manitoba, where severe weather cramped plans to see some farms. They did get to the Mennonite Heritage Centre in Winnipeg and the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach, however. Then they moved on to Alberta and three farms, and, lastly, to the MCC British Columbia offices, a warehouse, thrift shop and gleaning program.

The MCC-sponsored visit reinforced ongoing efforts to build bridges with people of a country that “generally speaking, has been painted as ‘the enemy,’” said Kathi Suderman. From Saskatoon, Sask., Suderman and her husband, Rod, serve as MCC Northeast Asia representatives, based in Beijing, China. Kathi, who works with KCCA on behalf of MCC, accompanied the men on the trip.

MCC began work in the DPRK in the 1990s in response to famine there. Its current focus is on sustainable agriculture and providing food and material aid to health care facilities, mostly tuberculosis and hepatitis hospitals and rest homes, as well as orphanages.

“Most of what the DPRK has experienced in relation to the outside world over the past 60 years has been hostility,” Kathi Suderman said. She added, political restrictions that limit interactions with people from the DPRK make it difficult to put a face to them and view them as humans. This adds to misunderstanding, making rare exchanges, like this one, all the more valuable in fostering relationships. Last year’s two serious artillery exchanges between the Koreas, which are still technically at war, reinforce the urgency of the need for communication bridges, she said.

The visit provided Kim and Ri a behind-the-cargo-container view of the material aid that arrives in the DPRK. At MCC Canada relief centers and warehouses, the two men saw volunteers assembling and/or packing blankets, health kits, newborn kits, school kits and canned meat. They saw volunteers dicing and dehydrating vegetables, then packing them into soup mixes.

At MCC thrift shops, Kim and Ri watched as some volunteers sorted, priced and put donations on display, while others recycled. They experienced one way in which MCC obtains its funds when they attended an MCC fundraising banquet. It’s easier to show DPRK partners what MCC does than to adequately explain it, Suderman said.

The men were impressed that about one-eighth of MCC’s $81 million income in 2009 and 2010 was raised through the recycling of gently used clothing, books and household items in MCC’s 100-plus thrift shops in Canada and the United States, Suderman said.

Openly viewing MCC’s operations and meeting participants from all walks -- directors to hands-on volunteers -- helps build trust for the organization among DPRK partners. “The assumption can be that we have a hidden agenda,” said Joe Manickam, MCC area director for Asia.

“Visits like this -- when partners go to Canada and see for themselves who we are and that we’re not hiding anything, when they meet folks in the offices and learn how we raise money -- are important,” Manickam said.

“We do have hope in the Korean people and long for the day when all of us can communicate with others in a less restrictive form,” said Manickam. “Such communication allows us to be mutually transformed as we see each other as humans.”

Kim spoke in terms of family ties. “There is a saying in Korean that one must visit family members often in order to be a family,” he said. The warmth with which MCC Canada received them makes MCC “like family,” he said, and they invited MCC directors to visit them in the DPRK.

KCCA also has issued an invitation to MCC to send two English teachers to work in a middle school in the DPRK, another link in connecting peoples or family-building, as Kim might put it. Currently these teaching opportunities are posted at mcc.org/serve.

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