Love in the time of sanctions

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) is probably one of the most mysterious and least visited places in the world for North Americans. Even for many U.S. policymakers, DPRK is often seen through a political cloud of fear and presented as an unknowable and unpredictable enemy. For the U.S. government, the label of “enemy” usually leads to punitive measures such as sanctions, but as Christians, the label of “enemy” should mean something quite different.

MCCer Joe Manickam giving blankets to a partner in the DPRK
Former MCC Area Director Joe Manickam and a local DPRK hospital official confirming the arrival of MCC blankets and canned meat.

Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) may seem to be a meaningless phrase in the midst of political complexity, but it is an important perspective that is often missing from U.S. policy. In fact, there are more open avenues for peacebuilding in DPRK than many people realize. DPRK has been placed under increasingly strict sanctions, but humanitarian assistance is still permitted and needed. In the recent flurry of policies directed at the DPRK government, it is important not to ignore cries for help from vulnerable citizens inside DPRK.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), one of just a few organizations providing humanitarian aid in DPRK, assists individuals with tuberculosis and provides orphanages with food and other material resources. MCC heeds Christ’s call to address the needs of the most vulnerable in society and believes this applies everywhere, including DPRK. Over 20 years of working in DPRK, MCC has been allowed access to verify that our resources get to those vulnerable people. Through MCC’s commitment to serving vulnerable people everywhere, MCC has the rare opportunity to work and build relationships with people in DPRK.

The picture that is painted of DPRK as a repressive, secretive country often leads people to forget that DPRK allows humanitarian workers and even tourists into parts of the country. By working in DPRK, MCC is able to challenge assumptions that engagement with DPRK is impossible and shows that some level of trust can be built through consistent engagement over 20 years. Even though the relationship between the U.S. and DPRK governments is tense right now, MCC finds hope in the relationships it has built with partners in DPRK and sees relationships on that small scale as one potential path towards a larger dialogue.

MCC’s commitment to vulnerable people looks beyond the political rhetoric to love our enemies. This ultimately opens up spaces for relationship building and ongoing dialogue. While both governments frequently blame the other for escalation and refusing engagement, this destructive cycle of blame denies all possibility of meaningful engagement or understanding. MCC is able to challenge the narrative of DPRK as unreachable through the individual relationships it has built and to provide an example of small scale engagement. Eventually, small examples of love can open the door for large acts of peace.

Jacob Greaser was a summer intern in the MCC U.S. Washington Office, focusing on foreign policy. Story originially published on August 1, 2016. Reprinted with permission from Third Way Cafe.

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