If you visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea), it doesn’t take long to sense a sadness; a bitterness in the air.
There was the occupation of the whole peninsula by Japan, a bitter war fueled by foreign powers in the early 1950s, U.S. military bases and exercises just across the dividing border and now sanctions that keep MCC from supporting the drilling of a well at a children’s hospital. The bitterness is not hard to understand.
When I mention the Republic of Korea (South Korea) to those hosting us, I expect more of the same bitterness, but often, it is sadness. I sense a lament that the two Koreas are still separated.
Of course, my visit was only a few short days. One of our tasks was to visit the three pediatric hospitals MCC has been supporting with canned meat. At each hospital, I would explain how the meat did not come from a factory but was donated, canned, labelled and packed by the real foundation of MCC – thousands of volunteers who want to share God’s love with neighbours whom they’ve never met.
Committed to being courteous visitors, we also brought packages of small gifts to the hospitals, including handmade blankets and neck warmers from Mennonite churches in South Korea. At the first two hospitals, I simply presented the neatly-sewn items from “MCC volunteers who do not know you but want to send a gift of love.” I thought mentioning that they came from Christians in the other Korea would make the gifts less welcome.
However, as the days passed, I sensed in the small but growing circle of North Koreans I encountered a gentle hunger for reconnection with their southern family. When I mentioned that I had seen a news story about reconnecting the road at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, one new friend added that it was not only the road but a railroad and a fibre optic cable that might link the two nations again. He said it with hope and expectation I hadn’t anticipated.
By the time we visited the third hospital, my presentation of the gifts included the more complete truth: that these gifts were made by the loving hands of Anabaptist Christians in South Korea – gifts of love to estranged members of their Korean family, in the name of Christ.
Their response? Gratitude. Our translator modelled a neck warmer with a wide grin, evidently enthused about how warm it would be in the winter!
As the week drew to a close, we continued to notice the impact that our peacekeeping efforts have made and continue to make in the nation, even when we encountered more bitterness and even anger, sometimes directed at our Canadian envoy. It is not lost on people that Canada supports the sanctions, and many residents have not forgotten that Canada fought against North Korea 70 years ago. Those who try to keep the Korean people from each other are considered suspect.
But what of their Korean cousins and aunts and brothers to the south? These are family they want to meet again.
We at MCC have the inspiring challenge to be an agent that encourages such reconciliation and reunion.