When we walk into the hospital dining room, we see a young girl seated waiting to eat. She is an inpatient at a pediatric hospital about an hour and a half outside of Pyongyang, North Korea, hospitalized after recurring diarrhea resulted in malnutrition.
This image of the girl sticks with me, but it is not the only image I take away from North Korea. Contrasted with this image, I hold images of North Koreans as neighbors, participating in the work of care and healing.
During Mennonite Central Committee’s recent monitoring trip to North Korea, one of our Canadian delegation members invited us to read Luke 10:30-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan.
In the parable, Jesus tells of a man who was beaten and left for dead. He is passed by a priest and a Levite before a Samaritan stops to help him.
“Which of the three do you think was a neighbor to the man?” Jesus asks, and the answer is the Samaritan, the person who belonged to a people group that many of Jesus’ followers would have despised.
Voices from the United States demonize people from North Korea in a similar way. North Koreans are often conflated with their government, represented by stereotypes of either mindless aggression or helpless need.
However, MCC’s enduring presence in North Korea gives us glimpses of North Korean Good Samaritans serving others even under difficult restrictions.
In the kitchen of the hospital we visit, a woman prepares a nutritious soup with canned meat sent by MCC. She recognizes MCC’s North Korea program coordinator and greets her with an embrace.
Elsewhere, mothers and nurses cradle infants, laughing when the babies greet us with a wave. In the operating room, surgeons operate with outdated instruments on children with emergencies like appendicitis or fractured limbs. Without gurneys, they rush young children to surgery in their arms as a nurse runs beside them holding IV bags.
There are many stories about North Korea, some true, most incomplete. While MCC supports these hospitals with material goods, it is North Korean hands that set bones and bandage wounds, sanitize instruments and prepare meals.
These hands operate under severe restrictions. MCC’s work in the country is incredibly complex, in part due to restrictions on cooperation, imports and travel within the country.
U.S. and United Nations sanctions against North Korea limit all imports except food and medicine, requiring humanitarian organizations to apply for individual exemptions for items as simple as plastic water filters and surgical forceps. This delays the delivery of lifesaving aid and contributes to unnecessary deaths.
We in the United States can be good neighbors by advocating for clear channels for humanitarian aid and an end to the hostility of the Korean War.
We can also be good neighbors by listening to stories from North Korea — hearing about the frail, sick girl, but also the nurse clutching her hand in hers, gently guiding a spoon to her mouth.
Katerina Parsons is legislative associate for international affairs in Mennonite Central Committee’s U.S. Washington Office, where she works on advocacy related to North Korea and Latin America.