Carman, Manitoba

MCC welcomes North Koreans to Manitoba

Building relationships with families and farmers in Canada

CARMAN, Manitoba – In those first few minutes after arriving at Syl’s Restaurant in Carman, members of the delegation from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) sit at the edge of the outdoor eating area. Then they see local resident Rene McFarlane at a picnic table with her son, Lane. The North Koreans move toward McFarlane and with the help of a translator, a conversation about families in both countries begins.

Local residents Rene McFarlane and her one-year old son, Lane, meet Mr. An Hui Jun, a member of the delegation from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). MCC photo/Colin Vandenberg

Chris Rice, MCC’s representative for Northeast Asia, calls this opportunity to build relationships person-to-person “a gift on the pathway to peace.”

“It may be the only place in the world that day where a Canadian and a North Korean engaged one another in this way, talking family to family,” Rice says. “In this way, small but powerful seeds of hope are planted.”

The delegation was one of two that came to Manitoba in the summer of 2018. Hosted by MCC, the delegations focused on learning about agricultural research and farm practices in the province.

Ambassador Ri Yong Phil from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) Mission to the United Nations tries out a tractor near an agricultural research plot south of Winnipeg. MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

In June, officials from the Korean Canadian Cooperation Agency visited a University of Manitoba agricultural research station and a local farm.

Ambassador Ri Yong Phil from the DPRK Mission to the UN in New York was part of the delegation. He says there are similarities in climate between the province and North Korea, but there are also significant differences.

“We have limited arable land and we cannot leave it vacant. We have no option but to plant corn and rice,” he says. “So, we can learn about conservation agriculture in Canada and about ways of co-operating between countries.”

Donna Rice, MCC representative for Northeast Asia and Ambassador Ri Yong Phil from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) Mission to the United Nations and others share a meal at the home of Charlotte and Ernie Wiens, south of Winnipeg. MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

The second delegation in July, mostly agricultural scientists from DPRK, was led by Mr. Kim Sang Il, who specializes in genetics, crop breeding and crop management. The delegation spent time with several agricultural scientists and visited a large organic commercial farm. Kim says North Korea and Manitoba have some common farming practices, but the age of their soils is very different.

“Manitoba has younger soil, more humus content. It hasn’t been in production as long,” he says. “In DPRK we have farmed for several thousand years and our soil is degraded. We are very much concerned with this.”

Members of a delegation from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) with staff from Kroeker Farms in Manitoba examine soil from a cultivated field at Kroeker Farms. MCC photo/Colin Vandenberg

Kim say that’s why North Korean scientists are interested in how Manitobans restore and nourish farmland.

“Science is our common language, a universal language,” he says.  “After we go back to DPRK we will work out a plan and implement it. And now that we know Canadian scientists, we can talk to them about it.”

Jennifer Deibert, MCC North Korea program coordinator, Mr. An Hui Jun and Mr. Jon Bom Ho, members of the delegation from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Martin Entz, professor in the plant science department at the University of Manitoba, at a research farm in Carman, Manitoba. MCC photo/Colin Vandenberg

MCC has worked in DPRK since 1995 and currently provides canned meat for three pediatric hospitals and other material support for tuberculosis and hepatitis care centres. Working through the Korean Canadian Cooperation Agency (KCCA), Rice and other MCC staff visit DPRK regularly. KCCA officials have visited Manitoba twice in the past few years.

“Regardless of the politics of the situation, there’s a common mission, a moral imperative of compassion for the vulnerable,” Rice says.

After 70 years of isolation and historical tension between the DPRK and the United States, Rice says Americans and North Koreans are “profoundly misinformed about each other.” MCC hopes to change that by giving people the space to build relationships person-to-person. While that’s not currently possible in the U.S., it can happen in Canada.

Staff from Kroeker Farms in Manitoba, agricultural experts from the University of Manitoba, MCC staff and members of a delegation from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), gather in a field operated by Kroeker Farms. MCC photo/Colin Vandenberg

“It’s seeking change through contact,” Rice says. “In exposing multiple stories about North Koreans and in North Koreans relating to others, we can imagine that the way things are right now is not the way it has to be in the future.”