On a snowy day in 2001, Ro Song Cho came to Bear Creek. Pausing in Iowa on a seven-week tour of the United States, the-then deputy director of the North Korean ministry of agriculture took time to chat to local farmers, and get pictured with Iowa heifers. Ro even enjoyed a potluck dinner in Bear Creek, eaten in a squat wooden cabin flanked by endless prairie.
This surreal encounter can be explained by the location for the Iowa potluck: the local Quaker Meeting House. For nearly 40 years, the Society of Friends has flourished in North Korea, developing relationships with officials and farmers that improve lives even now.
These successes speak to the usefulness of Quaker values to obtain practical change, and perhaps to the way the North Korean government sees outsiders – even if strict sanctions now risk ruining decades of hard work.
THE FARM PRINCIPLE
The Quaker-run American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has worked in North Korea for years.
Prodded by China – who remembered the Quakers for their help during the chaos of the civil war – the DPRK welcomed its first AFSC delegation in 1980. The trip was a success: the Quakers were met at the airport and given a bottle of Korean wine as they left. “It was a symbolic gift of appreciation and friendship,” recalled one member of the group in his memoirs.
This relationship has survived ever since, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union pushed North Korea to the edge of ruin.
For nearly half a century… they have quietly persisted, improving lives and fostering links with North Koreans
“After the 1990s famine, a lot of foreign organizations left, but we stayed on,” Linda Lewis, DPRK programme director at the AFSC, tells NK News.
“Our current program, where we work directly with cooperative farms, really started in 1996.” Nowadays, the AFSC works with four North Korean farms, providing equipment and training workers.
On the face of it, these projects are relatively basic. One involves using rice trays to plant seeds, while another teaches farmers to weave straw into insulation for greenhouses.
The equipment the AFSC imports – shovels and plastic sheeting – is simple too. Yet as Daniel Jasper is keen to stress, even these small innovations can change the lives of thousands.
“We work with 12,000 families directly, and 72,000 indirectly,” Jasper, a public education and advocacy coordinator at the AFSC, told me.
The figures for agricultural output are similarly impressive. Since using rice trays, yield on the AFSC-linked farms has jumped by over 10%.
The AFSC also arranges trips to teach North Korean agriculturalists in China. Lewis remembers a particularly striking moment where she showed a group of farmers their first winter greenhouses.
“They said that they had to heat their greenhouses on the inside, but couldn’t afford fuel. We told them that if they built them properly, they could raise crops all year long without any heating. They didn’t believe us, so we took them to China and showed them people raising strawberries and lettuce in winter without heat.”
MEETING IN THE MIDDLE
North Korea has historically hosted several Christian NGOs, from Mennonites to Lutherans. But the AFSC came first, and its four-decade stay in the country is a record for any American service organization.
In part, this longevity can probably be chalked up to its agricultural expertise. A reliable donor base, bolstered by generous Quakers, probably helps too.
Still, AFSC representatives are keen to emphasize that their achievements are down to more than just cash and fertiliser. Though not religious (he describes himself as “Quaker-adjacent”), Jasper explains that Quaker values “underpin” his work. One of the most important, he says, is the concept of ‘accompaniment’ – apparently borrowed from the divine exhortation for disciples to travel “two by two” into the world.
Earlier Quakers took the idea literally, and trekked around followed by a companion who provided spiritual guidance and moral ballast. That is less common nowadays – not least in North Korea where proselytizing of any kind is banned – but modern ‘accompaniment’ can still be useful.
As Jasper puts it, while outsiders might not solve communities’ problems for them, they can still “help and assist and follow in the footsteps of the community, and support them in their struggles.”
So it is in North Korea, where the AFSC has spent decades talking to farm managers and gradually building projects that work for them.
“We don’t stress disagreement,” Lewis explains. “We find a small space to stand on, and work to expand it out.” She doesn’t say so, but this approach is markedly different to that of some secular NGOs, including Medecins Sans Frontieres and Oxfam, both of which left North Korea back in 1998, citing the lack of “humanitarian space” in the country.
AFSC representatives are keen to emphasize that their achievements are down to more than just cash and fertiliser
At the same time, this non-confrontational style might give the AFSC more sway with North Korean officials. The Quakers “seem to be treated more like how the North Koreans treat European leftwing organizations,” Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, explains to NK News.
In particular, he cites the open cultural exchanges more typically enjoyed by Stalinist groups like the Korean Friendship Organisation than the Bear Creek Quakers. More broadly, Snyder wonders if their avowed pacifism makes the Quakers less likely to “engage in behaviours that could draw negative responses from the North Koreans.”
Not that the AFSC is happy to get jostled about. Obeying the Quaker duty to “bear witness” to truth – and mindful of the Biblical warning that “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” – the NGO fights for sensitive causes far beyond greenhouses.
Arguing for the repatriation of American soldiers killed during the Korean War is one such campaign. Another involves reuniting families split in 1953, an especially urgent cause now that the war and its victims disappear into history.
“There was a gentleman who just died maybe three or four weeks ago, and who was basically begging to find out what happened to his brother in the DPRK,” Jasper says. “Unfortunately he passed away without ever finding out. These stories are happening daily.”
RENDER UNTO CAESAR?
It has been a tough six months for the AFSC. In May, for the first time since 1980, the organization was unable to send a delegation to check on its farms in the DPRK. Worse was to follow.
Squashed between the travel ban and American and UN sanctions, the NGO is finding even simple work in North Korea a struggle. Tasks that once took Lewis and her staff a couple of hours now drag on for months, and the NGO has been forced to hire expensive lawyers to navigate the mass of regulations.
Jasper describes these challenges as “very worrisome,” not least given the vital role played by the AFSC in the nutrition of thousands of North Koreans.
Ironically, though, it is partly the very nature of its long-term agricultural projects that causes the AFSC so many problems. Though humanitarian goods are theoretically exempt from sanctions, Snyder explains, because the AFSC work in North Korea straddles humanitarian and development aid, bodies like the U.S. Treasury Department are more likely to “come knocking.”
He has a point: even the rice trays are now being caught in the sanctions. UN regulations, passed last year, mean they need cumbersome humanitarian aid licenses before they can be shipped.
More broadly, Jasper is nervous about the consequences of sanctions on the AFSC’s carefully-nurtured reputation in the DPRK. He says that shutting down the longest-running U.S. program in North Korea would have “repercussions” with local officials, especially given how long the AFSC has worked build “trust with our partners.” Lewis agrees, adding that “there is currently no way of to conduct knowledge transfer activities with North Koreans.”
Squashed between the travel ban and American and UN sanctions, the NGO is finding even simple work in North Korea a struggle
The situation is not entirely hopeless, however. Jasper and representatives from other NGOs are trying to get their organizations on a ‘whitelist’ that would spare them from the strictest sanctions.
But first, charities need to educate policymakers on what the regulations are actually doing, a task that is not always easy. “I’ve had many conversations with people in Congress about what the impacts of sanctions have been in our work,” Jasper says.
“In some cases, I’ve spent an hour or more explaining how these regulations play out on the ground. And these are policymakers that have written this stuff! It’s clear to me that not everybody is aware of how [these laws] are being implemented.”
It is too soon to say if the AFSC can recover its position in the DPRK, even as its representatives struggle on. “Whether or not people believe in sanctions, communicating and trying to understand the other side is pivotal for conflict transformation,” Jasper says.
“We will literally never get past this conflict until we do start to build some understanding there.”
The Quakers know this better than most. For nearly half a century, even as relations between the North Korea and the West have swung from cordial to angry and back again, they have quietly persisted, improving lives and fostering links with North Koreans all the way from Pyongyang to the Iowa plains.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Ray Cunningham on Flickr