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The People of North Korea: Peace, Reconciliation, Hunger

by Youngsook C. Kang and Gail V. Coulson

	A staff member at Pyongyang children’s home and four of the youngest orphans.
A staff member at Pyongyang children’s home and four of the youngest orphans.
Image by: Gail V. Coulson
Source: New World Outlook
		UM Bishop Joel Martinez and GBGM director Mary Baldridge present 70 Medicine Boxes to a representative of the Korean Christians Federation.
UM Bishop Joel Martinez and GBGM director Mary Baldridge present 70 Medicine Boxes to a representative of the Korean Christians Federation.
Image by: Gail V. Coulson
Source: New World Outlook

The People of North Korea: Peace, Reconciliation, Hunger



With this article, New World Outlook begins a three-part series on North Korea. The first article presents a brief history of the current division and a look at the continuing famine that plagues the country. The second part, to be published in the September-October 2003 issue, considers the political realities, the question of nuclear weapons, and the steps taken toward reconciliation. The third article, which will appear in the November-December 2003 issue, looks at the role and state of the church in North Korea and its efforts toward reunification.


The Korean peninsula, with a 5000-year history as one people and culture with common ethnic origins, language, and traditions, was annexed as a Japanese Protectorate in 1910. The liberation of the peninsula from Japanese occupation in 1945, after World War II, left a geopolitical vacuum. Forces from the Soviet Union, through the northern border, and from the United States, through Japan in the south, filled the vacuum. The country was divided along the 38th parallel. The United States, the Soviet Union, and Koreans were all dissatisfied with the division and the Korean people had no say in the matter.


A People Divided

The US-backed Republic of Korea (ROK) was proclaimed on August 15, 1948. The Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) proclaimed independence on September 9, 1948. The Korean War (1950-1953) followed, as US-led forces fought Chinese- and Soviet-backed North Korean troops. This ended in an armistice—a cease-fire—but a peace treaty has never been signed by the United States and North Korea. So the conflict continues.


After the Korean War, the 38th parallel became known as a demilitarized zone (DMZ), which extends over a mile on either side of the military demarcation line (MDL). About 600,000 North Korean soldiers are stationed 35 miles from Seoul. There are 37,000 US troops in South Korea. Yet, both the North and South Korean governments hold that the division along the 38th parallel is not a permanent border but a temporary administrative line implemented as a result of the 1953 armistice.


Families on both sides of the DMZ, divided by the war, did not know who had survived. They had no contact at all. More than five decades later, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall, the country is still divided. Unwavering political tension, a legacy of dictatorship and militarization in North Korea and hostility between Washington and Pyongyang, has outlasted even the Cold War.


Genuine security and peace in the region requires that the armistice be replaced by a peace agreement that formally ends the Korean War and provides a foundation for a unified Korea. This necessitates a formal negotiation of a non-aggression treaty between the United States and North Korea, with support from the governments of South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the European Union.


Apart from the DMZ, the DPRK shares a border with the People’s Republic of China along the Yalu/Ammock River and with China and Russia along the Tumen River. Given the Korean peninsula’s strategic location, it is not surprising that Korea, throughout history, has suffered 900 invasions, great and small, and has experienced five major periods of foreign occupation: China, the Mongols, Japan, and, after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union. In the event of conflict in the region, Russia, China, and Japan will have serious refugee concerns.


Christians have sustained their faith through the turbulent times in Korea’s modern history. Today, Koreans speak less of Korea as “North” and “South” and more of  Korea as a people divided. North and South began as early as 1971 to reunite separated families.


The tragedy of the 58-year division is deepened by the 2002-2003 international stand-off concerning  nuclear arms. This causes tremendous concern and suffering for both South and North.



Since 1950, US sanctions have been in place against North Korea. Regulated by the US Treasury Department, all US exports to Korea are banned, and goods from North Korea may not be imported into the United States.


Energy is a continuing problem for North Korea. The country has no oil reserves. In the early 1990s, the government began to construct two graphite nuclear reactors, but the Clinton administration insisted that the refined nuclear materials could also be used for weapons. In 1994, the Agreed Framework was negotiated whereby the reactors would be shut down and UN inspectors allowed into North Korea. Part of this deal was that the United States, South Korea, Japan, and the others would assist North Korea in building two light-water reactors for generating electricity by 2005. North Korea was promised 500,000 gallons of fuel oil each year until the new reactors were fully operational.


On June 19, 2000, US sanctions were further eased by the Clinton Administration. Trade in most products was allowed. Only goods and commodities that could be used for military purposes were still banned.


According to the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, who visited North Korea in October 2002, North Korea admitted to having nuclear weapons. So amidst political tensions at the start of the usual bone-chilling Korean winter, the Bush administration announced that it was stopping all oil shipments and humanitarian aid to North Korea. The administration insisted that even the reprocessing of stored fuel rods by North Korea would be a threat to the entire region. In response, the DPRK expelled UN inspectors and declared that it was resuming its nuclear program. As the confrontation unfolded, North Korea admitted that it had developed nuclear weapons. By April 2003, there were talks among North Korea, the United States, and China in Beijing, and inter-Korean talks were renewed.



In April 2003, the General Board of Global Ministries’ Board of Directors drafted a resolution on North Korea to send to General Conference, meeting in Pittsburgh, 2004. The resolution urges The United Methodist Church to hold firm to the work of solidarity and support for North Koreans and affirms the continuing partnership with the Korean Christians Federation, both bilaterally and with the ecumenical family.  Congregations may provide humanitarian assistance for the DPRK through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), by contributing to Advance #226435-0, “North Korea Emergency.”


Bleak Economic Conditions

The DPRK, facing desperate economic conditions, is one of the world’s most centrally planned and isolated economies. Much of its industry is beyond repair as a result of years of underinvestment and shortages. Both industry and power output have declined. Despite a rare good harvest in 2001, the nation faces its ninth year of food shortages owing to a lack of arable land, collective farming, weather-related problems (including a major drought in 2000), and chronic shortages of fertilizer and fuel. International food aid deliveries have allowed the population to escape mass starvation since 1995, but the population remains vulnerable to prolonged malnutrition and deteriorating living

conditions. Ever-present defense concerns mean that large-scale military spending eats up the resources needed for investment and civilian consumption.


Recently, the DPRK placed emphasis on earning hard currency, developing information technology, addressing power shortages, and attracting foreign aid, but it will not pursue these goals at the expense of relinquishing central control over key national assets or under going widespread market-oriented reforms. Some privatization and development of a Special Economic Zone bordering China has been developed. During 2002 and early in 2003, heightened political tensions with key donor countries, as well as general donor fatigue, drastically reduced the flow of desperately needed food aid.


The lack of peace and appropriate government policy in the Korean peninsula stands cruelly in the way of overcoming widespread starvation. Reports in recent years estimate that at least one million people have died from famine and disease. Life expectancy of males in 2002 was 68 years, and that of females, 72 years.


The Land

The entire Korean peninsula is the size of New York State and Pennsylvania combined, and the total land area of North Korea, at 120,540 sq. km., is just slightly smaller than Mississippi. Isolated and sparsely populated mountainous terrain and deep, narrow valleys comprise 80 percent of the North’s land area, with the remaining 20 percent scattered lowland plains. The country has some resources, such as coal, lead, tungsten, zinc, graphite, magnetite, iron ore, copper, gold, pyrites, salt, fluorspar, and limited hydropower, but arable land is scarce. Of the total land area, only 14.12 percent is suitable for agriculture.


Permanent crops are minimal, as farming is hampered by climatic extremes. Long, bitterly cold, dry winters and short, hot, humid summers are the norm. Too often, there are late spring droughts followed by severe flooding and occasional typhoons in the early fall. Water pollution, an inadequate supply of potable water, water-borne disease, deforestation, and soil erosion are chronic problems. Successive years of mono-cropping led to declining yields and created desperation in finding even marginal land for food production. In harsh conditions, frantic searches for household fuel have devastated hillsides through rapid deforestation.


DPRK lacks sufficient capital to pay for commodities required to meet the chronic grain shortage. There is no functioning industrial sector for fertilizer production, irrigation, farm mechanization, or the development of food-processing facilities. The transport sector, essential for delivery of fertilizers and seeds and for distribution of produce to areas with greater food deficits, is nonfunctional.


North Korean Recovery

Humanitarian assistance, development solutions with realistic targets based on available financial and human resources, advocacy, and realistic programmatic response are vital for North Korea’s transition to self-sufficiency.


Finding acceptable economic and cultural solutions to help North Korean families, primarily the more vulnerable women, children, and elderly, demands fresh energy. There must be assurances that humanitarian assistance will reach the sectors of the population in greatest need. Gaining access for monitoring and evaluating humanitarian aid and finding support for local capacity building is crucial, as distribution of assistance goes where access is granted. 


The humanitarian response to the emergency in the DPRK is about human development, which starts with meeting people’s basic needs and rights. They can then expand their choices to solve problems through their own initiatives and strategies.


In recognition that the family is the community’s basic cell, the overarching goal for humanitarian partners during 2003 is preserving lives and promoting the well-being of vulnerable populations, including children and women, through an integrated, rights-based strategy.


The United Nations estimates that 4.4 million people are vulnerable to a national food supplies gap of more than one million metric tons. Children under the age of seven are at high risk for disease and possible death from malnutrition and poor growth because of food shortages in the region. The 420,000 pregnant or nursing women receiving poor nutrition are at high risk of developing iron deficiencies and anemia. Reproductive health services are inadequate, leading to increased maternal mortality. Reduced learning capacity and decreased quality of education affect 3.9 million children. Nearly all of the population is at risk from inadequate food and a lack of essential social services, in particular, health, water, sanitation, and education.


In addition to a decade of crop failure brought on by mono cropping, drought, and flooding, vulnerable North Koreans were further weakened because they suffered a harsh winter without fuel. The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warns that unless there is a sustained recovery in the North Korean economy, this crisis, now in its tenth year, will not be overcome.


United Methodist Support  

During the height of the North Korea famine and US media coverage in the late 1990s, The United Methodist Church raised over $1.3 million and sent hundreds of emergency relief boxes for humanitarian assistance through UMCOR between 1995 and 2000.


Though the UMC support for continuing North Korea emergency relief drastically declined over the past three years, UMCOR partnered with the Korean UMC Reunification and Reconciliation committee to support two noodle factories and

provide boots for children’s homes through the Korean Christians Federation and the Aiding Committee of Overseas Koreans.


We pray that United Methodists and Christians around the world will resume humanitarian support for North Korea and join in solidarity to fulfill peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.



* Gail V. Coulson, who previously served as the United Methodist China Program Liaison in Hong Kong, is an executive secretary for Asia Pacific, and Youngsook Charlene Kang is the Deputy General Secretary for Mission Contexts and Relationships at the General Board of Global Ministries.

See Also...
Topic: Christian love Communities Economy Human rights International affairs Peace Poverty Prayers United Methodist Church
Geographic Region: North Korea
Source: New World Outlook

Date posted: Jul 14, 2003