An Interview with Corey Gordon, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Feed the Children
FTC: Why did you go to North Korea?
CG: Our vision at Feed the Children is that no child goes to bed hungry. We believe that every child, no matter where they are born, deserves to have nutritious food, a quality education, access to life-saving healthcare and hope for their future.
We know how great the need is in North Korea. Around 2.4 million children, pregnant and lactating women, and elderly North Koreans need regular food assistance according to Humanitarian Needs and Priorities, DPR Korea 2013. The National Nutrition Survey 2012, DPR Korea reports that more than 1 in 4 children under age 5 experience stunting from chronic malnutrition, with 1 in 3 of the children between age 2 and 5 suffering chronic malnutrition. Chronic diarrhea caused by lack of clean water and sanitation is one of the two leading causes of death among children under five (pneumonia is the other, according to Humanitarian Needs and Priorities, DPR Korea 2013). We also know that no other US-based non-profit is feeding or advocating for children there. It is clear that we, as a mission-driven organization, cannot not turn our back on the possibility of starting or supporting feeding programs in North Korea.
The opportunity to visit came about through the invitation of Dr. Kim, president of Pyongyang University of Science & Technology, to whom I was introduced by a well-respected international NGO leader, Dr. Ted Yamamori, former president of Food for the Hungry. Both men accompanied me to North Korea in December 2013 to see first-hand the work the university is doing to help the children of this country.
FTC: Were you scared?
CG: That’s the number one question people have asked me since my return. This was not my first international trip like this (I’ve been in NGO development work like this for some time), but I did have the healthy level of concern I always do when going into a country that appears to be volatile.
Because this country is such a mystery, with all the stories and rumors we hear, I was very careful: I didn’t want to offend anyone, commit any cultural taboos, or end up on the news because I’d been detained. But the people I met in North Korea saw that I was there to learn and sincere in wanting to partner with them to help the children. They saw that I was hiding nothing and arrived on their soil in the posture of a respectful guest, not the proverbial ugly American know-it-all.
I never felt in jeopordy or in danger while I was there. The North Korean government welcomed my visit officially and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPKR) officials accompanied me the entire time I was in the country. I will admit, though, that when my plane landed in Beijing and I was able to call my wife, I was relieved that all had gone well.
FTC: What were some aspects of your time in North Korea that surprised you?
CG: I learned so much there, uncovering surprises every day, but four things stick out in my mind about the trip:
The people of North Korea are no different from us. They love their families, love their children and want peace for their country. In spite of the many differences between our governments and politics, we have much common ground on a human-to-human level. The Korean people are not the axis of evil we’ve seen described by our media.
They were very straightforward and frank. In my conversations with several DPRK officials, I quickly knew where we stood with one another. They said, “If you are just here to take pictures for your own PR and fundraising, please don’t waste our time. But if you truly want to help us, we welcome you back.”
The people were very generous and welcoming. The whole week I was there, I was never made to feel like an outsider. As I was leaving, one DPKR official asked what my impressions were. When I replied, “You have a beautiful country, and your people are beautiful,” he gave me a big bear hug and asked, “When are you coming back?”
I was impressed that they wanted a heart-level connection with me, not just a business transaction. They were moved by my personal story of growing up as an American-GI-orphan on the streets of South Korea, which helped convince them of our sincere intent to help the children. After a lengthy conversation with several DPRK officials, one of them said, “In my heart I already feel like you are one of us, and that you have come home.”
FTC: Describe the children that you met. What are some of their greatest needs?
CG: DPKR officials took me out of the capital city of Pyongyang to the eastern coast of North Korea, where I was able to visit five children’s centers. As I greeted the children and met their care workers, what kept running through my mind was how often we see African children in need in photos and videos. Africa is a continent on which it seems you can find an American non-profit working in every square mile. We see far less about North Korea, even though the need is the same. They too need food, nutrition, healthcare, dental care and education.
FTC: What are your hopes for Feed the Children’s relationship with North Korea in the future?
CG: We need to help. To turn away now would run counter to our vision, and it will disintegrate every ounce of the trust that we built over the course of the December 2013 visit. I want to go back and continue to work with both DPRK and university officials to determine how we can begin helping the communities in greatest need. I look forward to seeing how our vision—that no child goes to bed hungry—can be lived out in North Korea.