DPRK delegation
MCC photo/Doug Hostetter

From left; Mark Epp, MCC Canada Director of Programs; Mr. Kang II Choe expressing thanks on behalf of Democratic Republic of North Korea delegation to Ernie and Char Wiens (beside him) for the hospitality and meal at their home in LaSalle, Manitoba; Darryl Loewen (seated at end of table), Executive Director MCC Manitoba; Un Hyok Ra, Director KCCA and Hyok Kim, Senior Director KAPES.

I was grateful for the opportunity in early May to sit around the dinner table on a Manitoba farm and share a Mennonite feast with local friends, some MCC colleagues, and our five guests from North Korea.

The delegation was here for a few days of meetings with MCC about our work in their country, some tour stops in southern Manitoba, and some mutual learning about agriculture, development work and each other. 

In 2016 in Musan County, and five other counties in Democratic Republic of North Korea, bridges, roads and rail lines were washed away or damaged by flooding from Typhoon Lionrock. Through its local partner, MCC distributed relief and school kits. MCC is also providing steel roofing to rebuild damaged daycares, kindergartens and clinics. MCC photo/John Lehmann

But for me, it was something that happened at that meal that captures the real purpose of the visit and the heart of MCC’s work; we talked about kimchi.

As we chatted warmly, laughed and talked about our families, our guests shared their favourite recipes and family secrets for making kimchi, a traditional Korean dish.

In the old days, they said, the cabbage, radish and peppers went into a clay pot and were buried in the yard until they were ready. You’ve probably had a similar conversation—maybe, like me, you’ve listened to Manitoba Mennonites reminisce about the old days of preserving veggies & fruit and butchering a winter's supply of sausage.

During my orientation to MCC some time ago, I was shown a video of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking about “the danger of a single story.” I highly recommend watching it for yourself, but the premise is that we can’t reduce another person—or another culture—to a single, one-dimensional caricature. While many are most familiar with MCC’s humanitarian work, the message of that video gets at another aspect of our work that’s really central to who we are. For decades, we’ve been working to build peace in the name of Christ and develop relationships across ethnic, religious and cultural lines. We're convinced that a just peace needs just laws and governments that serve the interests of their citizens, but peace also has to happen at an individual level, with small steps and face-to-face encounters leading toward reconciliation.

A five-year-old at the South Pyongan Kindergarten Orphanage in Pyongsong, Democratic Republic of North Korea, enjoys soymilk provided by MCC through a local partner. Names withheld for security reasons. First Steps photo/Rachelyn Ritchie

MCC has been working in North Korea for 22 years, and we know the political and humanitarian situation well. We also know that kimchi recipes won’t make the sabre-rattling go away or change some disturbing news about the country. But for me, that family dinner was part of the ongoing work of peacebuilding, and helped illustrate that there’s always more to the story—more to the people—than what we might think.

Darryl Loewen is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba.

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