US peace church forges historic links with North Korea

By agency reporter
29 Feb 2008

A delegation from the Church of the Brethren has made a historic visit to North Korea, to make direct contact with four farm enterprises that have received support from the church - an act yet rarely extended to people from the United States.

The delegation that visited the People's Democratic Republic of Korea for seven days in January 2008, and which is reporting back at the end of February, included Timothy McElwee of the peace studies programme at Manchester College, North Manchester, Indiana; Young Son Min, pastor of Grace Christian Church, a Church of the Brethren congregation in Hatfield, Pennsylvania; and Howard Royer, manager of the Global Food Crisis Fund of the Church of the Brethren General Board, with offices located in Elgin, Illinois.

The first of the group to visit was Bev Abma, director of programming for the Foods Resource Bank, who was in North Korea in mid-December 2007. Two mission administrators from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod joined the delegation in January: Carl Hanson, based in Hong Kong, and Patrick O'Neal, working from Seoul, South Korea.

The delegation followed up on support the Church of the Brethren has offered to the cluster of farm cooperatives. In 2004, to help North Koreans boost agricultural production and equip their country to avert periodic famine, the church entered into partnership with a cluster of farm cooperatives. In the intervening years the productivity of the farms has virtually doubled.

Through grants from its Global Food Crisis Fund, the Church of the Brethren assists small-scale farmers in poor countries around the world to strengthen food security by launching sustainable agricultural programs. The four farm cooperatives in the People's Democratic Republic of Korea have become an annual grant recipient, farms that were designated by their government for rehabilitation in order to feed and house their residents - 15,000 people.

Located two hours south of Pyongyang, the capital city, the farm operations caught the attention of North Korea leader Kim Jong Il, who this past December visited one of the communities and publicly commended its use of advanced farming techniques. He promised to make a return visit to the community this fall.

Kim Jong Il's government has established state quotas that give priority to the growing of cotton, a crop that has been introduced with some success on the four farms. Other key produce on the farms are rice, corn, wheat, barley, fruit, and vegetables. The farms have led the way in introducing improved varieties of produce and demonstrating double-cropping and the interplanting of crops.

In a country where 80 percent of the terrain is mountainous, and where fuel and fertilizer are in dire supply, advances in agriculture are hard to come by. Drought and floods periodically take their toll. Last August several days of torrential rain reduced by 60 percent what showed promise of being a record yield.

Pilju Kim Joo, president of Agglobe Services International, and Kim Myong Su, vice president of Korea Unpasan General Trading Corporation, hosted the delegation. Agglobe is the instrument through which the Global Food Crisis Fund has channeled over US$ 800,000 in relief and development grants to North Korea since 1996. Unpasan is a North Korea trading company with whom Agglobe has entered into a joint venture for managing the four farm programs.

Beyond cooperation in agriculture, Brethren delegation members were intent on reconciliation, taking whatever steps appropriate to help ease 60 years of estrangement between the US and North Korea.

They found common cause in a Sunday morning worship service with the Chilgol Christian Church, one of two Protestant churches in Pyongyang. The minister preached on 2 Corinthians 5, the call for believers in Christ to be ambassadors of reconciliation. The music underscored the call.

A vexing question for a delegation from a peace church is what message to share with a garrison state that has long regarded the military as its foremost institution. Delegation members found that a clear beginning was to listen and learn, and to cultivate relationships. Further, the Church of the Brethren has earned credibility and leverage within the DPRK that it is challenged to exercise well.

One of the church's aspirations is to broaden the Christian witness by encouraging other church bodies and agencies--the Foods Resource Bank, sister denominations, ecumenical agencies, Korean-American groups - to seek out opportunities of becoming engaged with North Koreans.

The Church of the Brethren is a Christian denomination committed to continuing the work of Jesus peacefully and simply, and to living out its faith in community. The denomination is based in the Anabaptist and Pietist faith traditions and is one of the three Historic Peace Churches. It celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2008. It counts almost 130,000 members across the United States and Puerto Rico, and has missions and sister churches in Nigeria, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and India.

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With kind acknowledgements to Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

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