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This article was published 6/5/2017 (1027 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Quietly, with no fanfare or photo ops, a delegation from North Korea arrived in Manitoba Wednesday night for meetings arranged by their humanitarian hosts.
The five North Korean men are here until Sunday, said Chris Rice, the Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) northeast Asia representative, who is accompanying them.
"We’re hosting a delegation of North Korean counterparts who we work with in our humanitarian work in North Korea," Rice said, adding there’s no way they’d have been given visas to enter the United States right now.
"It is rare and in the current climate it’s very difficult for this kind of mutual, face-to-face encounter to happen — it’s very significant," Rice said, carefully choosing his words so as to not jeopardize the relationship.
"I think we have to be very sensitive. MCC’s primary focus in this work is serving vulnerable people in North Korea and being ambassadors of peace and reconciliation. Sometimes that work is better done in ways that are quiet."
The "current climate" is rising global tension with North Korea threatening another nuclear test and the U.S. increasing its military presence in the region and pushing for tougher sanctions. Canada’s stance on North Korea is it’s a destabilizing force in the Asia Pacific region and it discourages travel and commerce with the isolated nation.
The MCC’s focus on North Korea is to help feed people and "plant the seeds" for peace, Rice said. The American lives in South Korea, where he grew up with missionary parents and now works for the MCC. He travels north to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea three times a year to meet with non-governmental organizations the MCC supports there. The MCC has been in North Korea for 22 years, Rice said.
Through its U.S.-based partner, Christian Friends of Korea, the MCC provides canned meat for tuberculosis and hepatitis patients and meets up to 50 per cent of patients’ protein needs at nearly 30 hospitals, rest homes and clinics.
The faith-based organization says it’s helping feed the most vulnerable in North Korea, where tens of thousands of people died from hunger in the 1990s. In 2015, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said 10.5 million North Koreans — nearly 42 per cent — were undernourished and that 81 per cent of households surveyed in 2014 didn’t have access to enough nutrients, especially fats and proteins.
Food is on the minds of the North Korean visitors in Manitoba, Rice said.
"We are visiting farms. They’re very interested in agriculture. We’re working with them on conservation."
They’re also meeting university representatives "to see what kind of academic exchanges might be possible," he said, without offering any specifics.
"The major focus has been agricultural learning," Rice said. And sharing a meal.
"We’re eating at local restaurants, and people are hosting us at their homes," said Rice, who wouldn’t disclose details of the group’s itinerary. They’ll be sightseeing, but one major tourist draw in Winnipeg — the Canadian Museum for Human Rights — is not on the agenda, he said. "We don’t have plans to do that."
Human Rights Watch lists North Korea as one of the world’s most repressive authoritarian states. It says the country generates fearful obedience by using public executions, arbitrary detention and forced labour.
The rights group says North Korea is tightening travel restrictions to prevent North Koreans from escaping and seeking refuge overseas and systematically persecuting those with religious contacts inside and outside the country. But that doesn’t appear to be the case for the Manitoba delegation and the MCC which, Rice said, has hosted North Koreans in the past.
"This is a rare opportunity," said Rice, who thinks Americans and Canadians might be surprised if they got to know some ordinary North Koreans.
"They’re human beings who laugh. They enjoy food and tell jokes. They’re people who know Americans and Canadians much better than we know them," he said. "I’m talking about the people we work with: there are limits to what we’re able to see and do when we’re there, but there’s a desire of ordinary people to engage us and be with us. This is really a channel of engagement that’s really missing these days."
"Human encounters and serving vulnerable people are planting the seeds for the future."
Seventy years after the nation split, a unified Korea is not too much to hope for, he said.
"My hope is that miracles can happen, and they have happened in history," he said. "No one thought South Africa would change without violence, and it did... Things are fragile. And things can get worse. I believe that God is at work in history and sometimes miracles happen."
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.