Thoughts on a Second Visit

Contributed by: Professor Don Clark, Trinity University, San Antonio, June 2010

In late March and early April 2010 I had the privilege of accompanying Director Heidi Linton and a delegation of Christian Friends of Korea (CFK) on a “confirming trip” to North Korea, traveling in and around Pyongyang and out into the provinces of North and South Hwanghae.

     Until recently I had no idea what a “National TB Reference Laboratory” is or how serious the lack of such a lab is in the DPRK when it comes to finding and treating Multiple Drug Resistant (MDR) cases of TB. Last winter’s edition of the CFK newsletter presented the importance of this project for the people of Korea and for CFK.  In traveling with CFK and visiting lab in March, I could see why the project was so essential.  MDR tuberculosis is a serious problem in North Korea requiring complicated and expensive treatment that can’t start until patients are properly diagnosed.  This diagnosis cannot be made in North Korea, nor can an individualized patient treatment plan be designed without a functioning National TB Reference Laboratory.  Lives that could be saved by earlier diagnosis are being lost.    

     In our suffering world there are many things that should not be.  In the 21st century, people with MDR tuberculosis should not be condemned to miserable illnesses and deaths for lack of a lab to provide timely diagnoses.  This is why I believe in the National Lab project and why I am so thankful that CFK, working with world experts from Stanford, the Bay Area TB Consortium, and the DPRK Ministry of Public Health, have managed to build and equip a National TB Reference Laboratory for the DPRK in just over a year.  I am glad to contribute towards the final needed item: the special electrical cable needed to bring continuous power from the power supply station across the Potong River, to the facility itself.

     I support CFK because I understand how important relationships are in Korea and why after fifteen years CFK is known and trusted by the North Korean authorities.  This track record of experience, promise-keeping, genuine Christian concern, and “Confucian sincerity” matters in North Korea, and it has created striking possibilities for extensive and important engagement such as through the National Lab project.

     In March and April as I traveled with our CFK group through rarely-seen areas of the DPRK, witnessing the situation with agriculture, small-scale marketing, electric power, and transportation, I was struck by how much North Korea needs basic infrastructure.  Though I thought I detected signs of better agriculture and potential food supply for the current year, I saw little improvement in electric power, safe water supply, fuel, or public transportation, even in Pyongyang.  In other words, North Korea is always just barely making it, mobilizing the fierce loyalty of the people through relentless slogans, references to external threats, and visions of a better future to which there seems to be no clear path. 

     Having lived in the south off and on since the 1950s in places that used to look a lot like North Korea does today, I know what it took to bring South Korea out of poverty, intermittent electricity, scarce fuel, rampant diseases, and the grossest injustices.  North Korea has tremendous human potential.  The people are well educated, disciplined, know how to work hard and sacrifice, and are willing to be mobilized for higher purposes.  They deserve better than they get, and my hope and prayer would be that somehow, in the next decade or two, a way can be found for them to move from the present to a brighter future.

     CFK has always been a leading humanitarian organization in support of the people of the DPRK.  In tuberculosis work it found a niche, and in the creation of the National TB Reference Laboratory it played a unique and leading role.  In some ways we have to regard North Korea—for example in food sufficiency—as an ongoing “emergency” requiring continuing shipments of food and medicine.  CFK is also branching out into hepatitis treatment, meeting another medical need.  But I think the long term for CFK also lies in infrastructural investments—things like the largest type of vinyl greenhouses, clean water, technical training, and installations like the National Lab. 

Peony Point

     On our trip I was struck not only by the intelligence and dedication of the people we met and by the strong potential for the North Koreans to build their own better life, but also by the physical beauty of the countryside—the increasing number of trees, the lakes and streams, and by the setting of the city of Pyongyang on the majestic Taedong River.  My parents used to tell me about visiting “Peony Point” for Pyeng Yang Foreign School picnics, looking out at the river from the topmost pavilion, called Ulmildae.  One morning in April, a few of us went up to Ulmildae on “Peony Point” (Moranbong, in Korean) on a brilliant spring day when the cherry blossoms were just starting to show.  The city shimmered in the distance—the stadiums where they have the Mass Games, the apartments that often don’t have electricity for elevators, the great monuments.  All of it was new—not there when my family called Pyongyang home.  My mind was full of tumbled thoughts but even so, the beauty of the place took my breath away.  I realized that I was seeing something of an illusion; but still I harbor faith that in God’s own time the illusion can give way to reality.  


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Words of Truth

Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

— Bible, Romans 8:24b, 25
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