Saturday, October 15, 2005

Easing the plight of starving North Koreans

Amid the ruins of a bombed-out Chinese railway bridge, 50 meters from the North Korean border, U.S. Christian missionary and Ton-A-Month Club founder Tim Peters catches his first glimpse of Sinuiju. A once bustling industrial town, Sinuiju shows few signs of life. Resembling a ghost town, it bears quiet testimony to the North's moribund economy and chronic fuel shortage.

Along the northern shore, obsolete smokestacks tower over idle factories. Rusted vessels docked along the quay seem barely seaworthy. Peters is here in the northern Chinese city of Dandong, separated from Sinuiju by a 200-meter-wide stretch of the Yalu River, to understand the conditions that have driven over 100,000 North Korean refugees from their famine-ravaged homeland since 1995.

"What really gets me is the silence," he said, peering across the Yalu from a bridge bombed by U.N. forces at the height of the 1950-53 Korean War. "I don't think there's another famine-hit region of the world where millions of people have starved to death with an attitude of...well...almost resignation."

Accompanied by a South Korean volunteer, Suh Min-woo, the missionary finds few people willing to discuss the northern famine in Dandong's Korea Town, where signs printed in hangul, the Korean alphabet, stand out in streets aglow with Chinese New Year lanterns.

At a kalbi restaurant, one middle-aged patron says it is no longer possible for North Koreans to visit ethnic Korean relatives in Dandong. This year, the Korean-Chinese had to make the trek across the northern border.

In a coffee shop designed to resemble a traditional Korean thatched hut, another ethnic Korean comments that his once fluid business dealings with North Koreans have broken down since the North's "difficulties." Most inquiries, however, are met with a perturbed silence, Suh says. "At first, restaurant owners and customers seem happy to converse with someone in Korean," she says. "But the moment you mention North Korean refugees, people become defensive and suspicious, saying 'I don't know anything about that.’”

Peters and Suh are prepared for such responses. Before their fact-finding trip to China, they had read accounts of Chinese government crackdowns on refugees, spurred by pressure from Pyongyang. International media reports also indicated that security on the North Korean side of the border had tightened significantly, following a brief period of relative laxity at the height of the famine.

Supporting these reports was a conversation Peters had in another northern Chinese town with a Chinese humanitarian worker, who recounted a horror story told to her by a recent North Korean refugee.

"This Chinese volunteer was literally in tears as she recounted the story of a North Korean woman who had barely escaped repatriation by Chinese troops," Peters says. "This (North Korean) woman's sister had apparently fallen behind, was accosted by Chinese troops and marched to the northern border. From a distance, the woman had watched in agony as her sister was literally dragged across the frontier by a metal hook the northern border guards had shoved through her jaw."

Sickened by the "medieval" quality of reported atrocities against North Koreans seeking to flee their famine-ravaged country, Peters stresses that he is no apologist for the policies of the North Korean regime.

He does, however, take issue with the still widely held view that food assistance to the North translates into support for the North Korean military and the northern regime itself.

"I'm completely aware of the pitfalls of just blindly handing over money to the North Korean government," he says. "But there are avenues where people can feel assured that most of what they're giving is going where they intended."

Engaged in relief and missionary work in Yokohama, Japan, when the famine in North Korea broke out, Peters recognized its severity not long after he and his family decided to relocate to Korea in early 1996. "It all began with a little prayer meeting with my wife, Sun-mi, and youngest son, Christopher," he recalls. "We saw statistics indicated that perhaps one million had died so far and it was eye-opening. An intriguing Bible verse came to our attention at this time. Proverbs 25:21 says, 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; and if he's thirsty, give him something to drink.' To us, this was a big green light for gathering relief for the North."

The Ton-A-Month Club marked its debut by participating in goodwill marches dedicated to North Korean famine relief, which were organized by Alan Biggs, now chief of the Seoul International Rescue Corps, a Red Cross unit composed of expatriates and Korean volunteers.
The TAMC has since organized musical benefits at the Inter-continental Hotel, choreographed by Peters' eighteen-year-old daughter, Rachel, and set up teen Christmas performances at Santa's Village at Yongsan Army Base to draw donations.

But in its first two years, the organization faced a formidable obstacle in the policies of the South Korean government. The Kim Young-sam administration not only banned direct aid to the North, but also implied that the bulk of food assistance would be diverted to the North Korean military.

Concerned about potential difficulties with the government, Peters turned to acceptable channels to assist famine victims, including donations to the Korea National Red Cross. The group later developed a cooperative relationship with the Join Together Society, a Buddhist activist group that had established a food production plant in the North's Rajin-Sonbong Free Economic Zone.

Since 1996, the Ton-A-Month Club has shipped 38 tons of food to North Korea and gathered 8 million won in direct donations.

"This may not seem like a lot," Peters says. "But if you consider that we are one missionary family with a few helpers, it's an example of what ordinary people can do with God's help if they put their minds to it. Imagine the impact if hundreds or thousands of families or individuals did the same thing."

Peters says that he hopes to visit soon the border region along the Tumen River in northeastern China, where the bulk of North Korean refugees have taken flight.

The Korea Herald -- March 12, 1999

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