When the Rev. Billy Graham made his much-touted visit to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in 1992, there wasn’t much information flowing in or out of a country devastated by war and in the grip of a dictatorship.
“That was when North Korea was a total black hole,” says Heidi Linton, executive director of the Christian Friends of Korea. But Graham’s visit did make some lasting inroads and connections, and when the CFK was formed in 1995 on the heels of severe flooding in the East Asian country, the Black Mountain-based group found a support network already in place right down the road. The nearby Montreat Conference Center has long been a gathering place for Presbyterian missionaries, many of whom settled in the area—including some who had previously spent time in Korea.
Nonetheless, supplying food to outlying areas of North Korea remains a daunting task. CFK teams make regular trips there to confirm the delivery of shipments from both the U.S. and China—a task that entails a good bit of backcountry travel.
“The easy part is getting to North Korea,” says Linton. “Many of these places are literally located at the end of a foot path.”
Fourteen years later, the group provides not only food aid but also agricultural equipment such as greenhouses. And in what must have been a monumental logistical feat, CFK also renovated four hospitals’ operating suites over an 18-month period in 2007-08. Everything had to be brought in from either the U.S. or China, from basic building materials down to the screws for mounting a light fixture.
With tuberculosis rampant in North Korea (100,000 cases were diagnosed nationwide last year), combating the disease quickly became one of the group’s central goals. The CFK supports three hospitals and 15 TB rest homes, providing medicines, portable lab equipment and training as well as funding.
Although the group does not proselytize while in the country, its work, Linton emphasizes, fosters connections, helping bring about a better understanding between two cultures that have long been locked away from each other. Every hurdle the CFK clears builds more trust between North Koreans and Americans, making it possible to move on to the next, bigger project.
“The doors continue to open. The opportunities are immense; the needs are overwhelming,” she says.
This year, the Christian Friends of Korea, which is not affiliated with any particular denomination, has been asked to join forces with World Vision, Mercy Corps, Global Resource Services and Samaritan’s Purse in establishing a food-aid cooperative that can supply a whopping 1,000 metric tons of food to 896,000 people in just two provinces.
Info: Christian Friends of Korea, P.O. Box 936, Black Mountain, NC 28711 (669-2355; www.cfk.org).