Manitoba

North Korean group's visit to Winnipeg a step toward mutual understanding, says MCC

A delegation of five humanitarian workers from North Korea is in Winnipeg this weekend learning about an organization that has helped provide aid to the notoriously secretive nation for more than two decades.

Amid rising tensions, a rare visit from North Koreans sparks hope for peace, says Mennonite charity

Mennonite Central Committee, along with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, helps train North Korean farmers on practices that increase yields. Seasonal food shortages often spark hunger and malnutrition in the country. (James Frey/Mennonite Central Committee)

A delegation of five humanitarian workers from North Korea is in Winnipeg this weekend learning about an organization that has helped provide aid to the notoriously secretive nation for more than two decades.

The group is hosted by Chris Rice, the Mennonite Central Committee's representative for northeast Asia. Their four-day trip ends Sunday.

"They're greatly enjoying their time here," said Rice on Friday. "This is a really great opportunity, especially at a time like this where there's rising hostilities."

Tensions between totalitarian North Korea and the United States, and U.S. ally South Korea, have been extremely high in recent weeks.

Chris Rice, the Mennonite Central Committee's representative for northeast Asia, is hosting five North Korean delegates in Winnipeg. (Mennonite Central Committee)

On Friday, North Korea accused the United States of trying to assassinate dictator Kim Jong-un using bio-chemical weapons. There are also mounting concerns North Korea may conduct yet another nuclear test, despite pressure from China and the U.S. to stand down.

"It is a dangerous time right now," said Rice, who lives in South Korea. "The hope and prayer is that various leaders will not escalate."

The five North Korean delegates visited farms near Winnipeg to learn more about agricultural practices, said Rice. They also shopped at an MCC thrift store and took part in some tourist activities, including a tour of The Forks.

One stop, however, was conspicuously absent from the agenda — a visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Rice said the main purpose of the trip was introducing the North Korean visitors to the people who provide financial support to MCC and to talk about the work the charity does around the world, including in their home country. 

Thousands receive aid from MCC

The Mennonite Central Committee has provided a range of aid in North Korea since 1995, said Rice.

The Christian group distributes canned meat to approximately 2,000 orphaned children in the country and to about 1,000 tuberculosis patients who live in remote areas of North Korea.

It also provides soybeans to a factory that produces soy milk for vulnerable children, and trains farmers on better agricultural practices.

Rice, who himself has visited North Korea four times, said the work is highly respected by his North Korean counterparts.

"We've established a reputation, credibility for the quality of the humanitarian service," said Rice. 

While some American organizations have been forced to abandon work in North Korea due to increasing global tensions, Rice said the Mennonite Central Committee has managed to hold on, in part because they are a church-run rather than government-funded agency.

'A really rare opportunity'

While this is the first time the delegates from North Korea have visited Canada, many of them have travelled to Europe and even the U.S., said Rice.

The utter geographical flatness of Manitoba has been somewhat thrilling for the visitors, said Rice. North Korea is a rugged, mountainous country.

"It's obviously very different from their country. They're greatly enjoying their time here," he said with a laugh.

"This is a really rare opportunity to have this kind of time together."

Children at a North Korean orphanage receive canned meat and dried soup as part of an effort by the Mennonite Central Committee to help meet their nutritional needs. (Kathi Suderman)

Normally, the Mennonite Central Committee has staff permanently based in the countries where they provide aid, giving volunteers and the people they help time to really get to know one another.

In North Korea, MCC's visits are limited to a couple of weeks every few months.

"I think the main challenge is being there enough," Rice said of working in North Korea. "With limited time it's very difficult to build the kind of relationships that we would like to build."

Despite the short visit to Canada, Rice hopes the North Koreans' time here will help foster greater mutual understanding. 

"We're really committed to do this, and at the heart of MCC's calling and mission is peace."

with files from Thomson Reuters

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