North Korea through a humanitarian worker’s eyes

Date Published: 
February 28, 2014

Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Heidi Linton fields questions about her quarterly trips to North Korea at St. Matthews By-the-Sea United Methodist Church in Fenwick Island. Linton is the executive director of Christian Friends of Korea.Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Heidi Linton fields questions about her quarterly trips to North Korea at St. Matthews By-the-Sea United Methodist Church in Fenwick Island. Linton is the executive director of Christian Friends of Korea.The North Korea government is known to abhor Americans and arrest Christians. Yet, somehow, Heidi Linton is allowed to visit the reclusive nation four times a year. She told the tale of those visits recently at St. Matthews By-the-Sea United Methodist Church in Fenwick Island.

Linton visits Korea for several weeks at a time to ensure that charity shipments reach their destination, as well as for training, technical projects and relationship building. She is executive director and co-founder of Christian Friends of Korea (CFK), a nonprofit openly providing humanitarian aid under a Christian banner.

The CFK cannot distribute Bibles or preach, she noted, “but our actions speak loudly [to the people]. When they see Christian love … it is so contrary to their fears and expectations” that they ask questions, which Linton said leads to attitude changes.

“When Christians are discovered, we do know that some have been executed in recent years or relocated” to the very poor countryside, Linton said.

Since 1995, CFK has delivered more than $67 million worth of aid, including food, medicine, technical upgrades, agricultural supplies and equipment, water well-drilling and more. The goal is self-sufficiency for the North Korean people.

Calling itself the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” with a population of more than 24 million people, North Korea lost an estimated 1 to 2 million people to famine in the 1990s, Linton said. Today, the average citizen eats only one or two meals daily, and a malnourished teenager might be the size of a child. They may only get protein a few times a year, she noted.

“They can tell you exactly when they ate and what they ate,” Linton said.

Because “malnutrition suppresses people’s natural immunity,” a tuberculosis epidemic followed the heels of famine, especially dangerous when one untreated person can infect 10 to 20 others in one year. Originally, those people were sent to hospitals to die. With insufficient supplies, the medical centers were surrounded by graves.

CFK now sends supplies to 30 small sites, and they recently partnered with the country’s Ministry of Public Health and Stanford University to complete the first national tuberculosis reference laboratory. Years of progress on such relationships have been marked by diplomatic struggles on the national stage, such as North Korea’s nuclear power tests.

“They also know very little about us. They are reminded constantly about the devastation of the Korean war” caused by ‘Christian and imperialist America,’” Linton explained.

“Their version of history is very different from our version. They believe South Korea invaded the North at the behest of the American government. [Everyday citizens] have no evidence to the contrary,” Linton said.

Kim Il-sung is praised as both a liberator and a god there, although objective histories say otherwise about the communist leader who invaded South Korea in 1950 and was pushed back by 1953. The North Korean policy is to indoctrinate the generations with a rewriting of history, she noted.

“People will give their lives for their regime,” said Linton. That seems patriotic, but is misguided. “You cannot argue — which I very foolishly tried to do once” in her early days, she recalled. “What I saw mattered … less than what he read in a book written by the great leader … People are convinced by the rightness of their perspective.”

During one of the political holidays, Linton and company stuck to their hotel overlooking a city square. People lined up to bow and place flowers at the square’s central statue, in an endless procession lasting all day long.

So how many Christians are instead worshiping underground in North Korea?

“We don’t know, and, frankly, CFK does not seek out that information” because those people would be such a target to the government, Linton emphasized.

The government basically owns all industry in a system that does not really allow for private business ownership. However, national defense is a high priority. According to Linton, North Korea has one of the world’s largest standing militaries.

She pointed out that accidents on the jobsite or road are usually more dangerous for CFK than North Korean antagonism. Much of the countryside has no roadways, so drivers plow through streambeds, cornfields and mountainsides. Actual roads are crowded with ox carts, animals, elderly people and lone children. Linton said she fears for the pedestrians who don’t look before crossing the street, since cars are so uncommon.

In the countryside, Linton said, hotels might not have hot water or even plumbing. Newer urban hotels are comfortable, but not glamorous, she said.

“Cell phones have been a complete game-changer” that provided the CFK flexibility to work on multiple nearby sites at once, she added.

While it’s a big deal if North Korean government allows CFK through the country’s many checkpoints, Linton said the people can be very “solicitous and friendly,” although “many had never seen an American before.”

The local directors would be physically shaking to host Americans under the eagle eyes of government officials from Pyongyang and the provinces. To compensate, they would deliver a “20-minute speech on the great leader providing all and American imperialism. They would never tell us what they needed. We had to look around.”

The American delegation started small, by sending food or medicine. Eventually, Linton said, the “go-home look” disappeared from the North Korean faces, their arms unfolded, the dark sunglasses came off.

“We heard what a difference the project made in the community,” she said, and locals offered suggestions for the next project, asking CFK to thank their donors on the people’s behalf.

Some people warmed to the Americans, but slowly, Linton said. Despite his guiding the small group for several weeks, Linton recalled one man who barely spoke two words together. When Linton encountered him again, he was her counterpart for the North Koreans in the laboratory project. After a year and a half of partnership, he became friendly, she said, and she was finally comfortable enough to ask what he thought of the Americans.

Both of his grandfathers were killed in the Korean War, he had told her, and suddenly he had to work with the enemy.

“‘How are you going to treat these people who destroyed your country and your family?’” he had asked himself. But “all that has changed now.”

“That’s the power of love,” Linton told the Fenwick Islanders.