Beginnings: Exploring Work North Korea Part 2

Recently, we shared an interview with you about a trip that Corey Gordon, our Chief Marketing Officer took to North Korea. He traveled to this place that few Americans ever visit. He explored the possibility of feeding hungry children in this country. In July, Corey traveled again to North Korea to meet with more government leaders and see the results of our first shipment of food into the country. We thought you would like to hear this update on his trip and the work we are doing.

Feed the Children: What did you do on this trip to North Korea?
CG: I traveled to North Korea to validate with my own eyes, the Vitameal distribution. My guides took me to 9 different orphanages. One day I also visited a children’s hospital and a physical rehabilitation center.

I also had several meetings with higher-level officials, including those with the Korea Education Fund (KEF), an internationally recognized NGO established by their leader, Kim Jung Un. KEF’s mission is to ensure the feeding, education and health of the childen in North Korea. Here, I was able to meet with and have a really productive conversation with their president and their senior program manager. We discussed partnering together, and how best to work in conjunction with the governmental agency that oversees Feed the Children’s involvement in the North Korea.

Feed the Children: What did the North Koreans think of the shipment of Vitameal?IMG_0053

CG: We couldn’t have picked a better product to send than Vitameal. Everyone I met with, the orphange directors, the doctors at the larger orphanges, the government officials, the team from KEF, were all very supportive and saw the value of the protein and nutrients in the Vitameal for the kids.

We knew this would be far more nutritious than just sending rice, with the added vitamins and minerals necessary for the healthy development of the kids. However, what we didn’t know at the time was the cultural good we were also doing.

Rice is cliché in Asian cuisine – everybody eats rice. But if you go to a nice restaurant and ask for rice, they don’t just give you plain white rice. You get something else mixed into it – other grains or beans, which is a sign of higher level in society. Vitameal is a combination of lentils, barley, and rice, and they mixed it into the rice they already had. So this made the children’s meal more like a special treat or occasion. Needless to say, they are very eager to receive more. They also told me countless times how thankful they were that Feed the Children followed through on its promise. It added greatly to our credibility that we made good on our commitment, before going back there.IMG_0022

Feed the Children: Did you see anything else interesting on your trip?

CG: My guides wanted me to see more of their country, to learn more about their history and culture, things that made them proud of their country.

I visited Kaesong, the cultural historical birthplace of Korea, the home of the Koryo dynasty. I love history, so it was fascinating to see things that were 1000-1200 years old. I was also given a tour of the birthplace of Kim Il Sun, which holds as much honor to them as we would view Mount Vernon.

I traveled to Panmunjom, which is the actual border between north and south (not the demilitarized zone). DPRK soldiers escorted me right up to the border itself. And I saw the building where the UN and Allied troops met with the DPRK leaders and where they signed the armistice. Everything was there just as if the meeting took place yesterday! I even sat in the chair where the UN negotiators sat to work out the deal.

Feed the Children: What were some aspects of your time in North Korea that surprised you this time?

CG: Even after visiting once, I didn’t realize how many preconceived notions I had about North Korea. I was very humbled by that, as I had considered myself to be fairly balanced and open-minded.

Probably what surprised me the most was the level of criticism directed towards American NGOs. I had expected there would be such towards the U.S. goverment, but it’s pretty evident that they don’t think much of the arrogance and tactics of American NGOs and visitors.

IMG_0123Unfortunately, the perception of the “Ugly American” is still very much alive internationally, with our seeming belief that we have all the answers and can solve all the world’s problems. Yet they can just as clearly see that we have our own issues and sins as well. I reiterated over and over that we would not be there to be critical and judgmental, we would always be respectful guests and partners.

Feed the Children: What are your hopes for Feed the Children’s relationship with North Korea in the future?

CG: Working in North Korea is very much a step-by-step process, as we continue to work hard to establish credibility and trust, both ways. Kim Jung Un recently visited an orphanage himself, and was quoted as saying, “Children are the king of this country.” That statement clearly highlights that the North Korean leaders really do want to help their children, but just need help to do so. Our response – a second shipment of Vitameal arrives into North Korea this week, with the next container to be shipped at the end of the month. These shipments cost us $5,000 per container, so if you look at it from a per serving basis, that’s less than 3 cents per meal. It’s such a small cost for making a huge impact on the future of so many children!IMG_0134

Beyond providing food, the North Korean officials have already authorized us to begin bringing into the country deworming medicines and Vitamin A, as we look to expand our work to focus on the health of the children. As funding continues to be available, we are looking forward to a long-term relationship with our North Korean partners, expanding the type of products we can send to help more kids.

To help futher this work, I will be traveling to South Korea this week, where I will be meeting with a number of potential board members and supporters and moving forward with the launch of Feed the Children Korea. Our office in Seoul will direct our programmatic work in South Korea, as well as help support the work in North Korea. Our goal is to have our office up and running by the end of the year, and I hope to return to North Korea in December.

Beginnings: Exploring Work in North Korea Part 1

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.

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Corey Gordon and Dr. Kim, president of Pyongyang University of Science & Technology. arrive in North Korea

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.

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Corey Gordon and Dr. Kim visit a class at the Pyongyang University of Science & Technology

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.

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North Korean school children sing for their special honored guests

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?”

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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.”

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Christian faculty at the Pyongyang University of Science & Technology meet voluntarily for chapel service and prayer

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.

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Lunch with the students and faculty at Pyongyang University of Science & Technology

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.