Seeing for the first time

North Korea, June 13, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    courtesy of Esme Jo Culver  </span>
    Esme Jo Culver stands among fruit trees planted with assistance from Mercy Corps. Photo: courtesy of Esme Jo Culver

Two weeks ago, I visited North Korea for the first time.

For many years, I was privileged to hear firsthand stories of the people of North Korea from my husband, Mercy Corps co-founder Ells Culver. Over the course of more than twenty visits, from the time of the terrible famine a decade ago, Ells brought home stories of possibilities for peaceful and thoughtful negotiations. He worked tirelessly, alongside many colleagues, to pave the way for Mercy Corps to bring the critical assistance needed for the health and survival of the Korean people.

So before my own journey to North Korea, I heard stories of relationships, of growing respect between those who worked to obtain that assistance and those who sought to bring it. I heard stories of listening, understanding and acceptance.

I knew little of the politics, pressures and tensions involved in delivering much-needed goods to North Korea. But I knew well the passion that gripped Ells when faced with caring for the hungry and I carried the memory of that passion with me when I visited the country last week.

A respectful invitation and a rare glimpse

Invited by North Korean officials to see the work that Ells had accomplished, I asked myself why such an invitation would be made. I can only conclude it is because they cared deeply for Ells and out of respect the ongoing projects he established, they knew he would want me to see it. Mercy Corps graciously included me in their latest mission into the country.

As we rode into the countryside, we passed an endless stream of people working feverishly to get the rice harvest planted. We were informed that all citizens would be expected to help with the planting. This was reflected by differences I noticed in those walking to and from the planting sites: some women - brightly dressed, wearing cosmetics and talking to each other and their children with animation and humor - might have been city dwellers doing their part.

Passing by them, I would wave and they would wave back laughingly. One might think of this as a sign of hope. Others, far less animated or responsive, either simply stared back at us as we passed or merely continued walking, taking no notice of our truck going by.

An unending patchwork

People, bent over in the paddies, rarely looked up. Patient oxen inched forward as their human partners seeded the rows. Here, in rural North Korea, one could only sense a certain stoicism and fatigue. Their work was their only focus and its constancy was made evident by an unending patchwork of rice, cabbage and corn that stretched as far as one could see, covering distant hills.

Those hills told a story of their own: long since de-foliaged, leaving the land vulnerable to typhoon and potential drought. There seemed little evidence of terracing that would help protect fragile crops against heavy rains. I imagined all this hard work sliding down the hillsides onto the paddies below.

The overworked land wad slowly and surely becoming as exhausted as those who worked it until, inevitably, all might reach a point of no return without re-nourishment and rest.

Very real needs

At a stopping point on one back road, I noticed a barefoot child gathering sticks into a sack. Her mother was close by working in part of the field. When her mother noticed us watching she spoke abruptly to the child who promptly emptied out all her gathered sticks and ran to her mother’s side.

It was a revealing and sad scene, pointing out the very real need the majority of the population has for the basic necessities: clean running water, fire to heat it and food. People are thin. Whether city dwellers or country farmers, they are small and carry no excess weight.

One quickly becomes conscious of the strong possibility that, even with all the planting and preparation for harvest, there simply isn’t going to be enough food to feed everyone adequately. I felt the weight of Western luxuries taken for granted – water, heat, food aplenty - and I began to understand the motivation for Ells’ passion, as well as the passion of Mercy Corps as it pursues worldwide relief.

How can we, who have so much, stand by when others need our help?

Apple orchards are in need of fertilizer and agricultural expertise, fish farms need fish food and protection from the elements, hospitals need the barest necessities that we would simply expect in order to be properly functional. Ells often pointed out the discrepancy between the amount of medical supplies in our country that are used once and then discarded and the absolute lack of any supplies in North Korea.

When I viewed one operating room, I saw for myself what he had been trying to convey. The room held only an ancient bare steel surgical table and an old surgical lamp. Relying primarily on herbal medicines, we noticed herbs drying outside on a slab of concrete. Surely, I thought, we can supply enough medical supplies and expertise to improve the safety and functionality of this facility.

It’s a heart thing

As political posturing and tension-filled mandates are issued, a population faces potential disaster. While I am no expert in any of these arenas, I have seen that the heart of the people beats below the political rhetoric.

The eyes of women who shyly waved back to me are imprinted in my heart forever. The delighted eyes of hardened orchard engineers and fish farmers, lighting up at the mention of the name “Mr. Culver” made us all smile with harmonious recognition of what is innately good in the world.

Nobody could openly express their deepest thoughts, but words were not necessary. It’s a heart thing and it’s universal. It’s why Mercy Corps goes into fragile places like this, why they will be there for as long as it takes to do what is right. The core of the issue is not about judgment, it’s not about politics, it’s not about who’s right or wrong.

It’s about simple human caring and our responsibility to stand shoulder to shoulder with our neighbor as they keep on planting. To do otherwise would be the greatest disaster of all.