The Power of Human Engagement in North Korea

Photo by Bridget Butler

By Sarah Withrow King

In early February, I had the pleasure of joining a few ESA colleagues to meet with a group of people who have spent many years living and/or working in North Korea. One of the people we met was Gabe Segoine, the director of Love North Korea Ministries, which builds relationships between those who desire to help the people of North Korea improve their daily lives, and those on the ground in North Korea who are already doing good work. Love North Korea Ministries works through on-the-ground partnerships with organizations that have established distribution networks, providing humanitarian aid such as rice, coal, medicine, clean water, and hand-cranked lamps to people who need it most.

Gabe has been in relationship with North Koreans for more than a decade. His love for people, love for God, and deep desire to recognize the image of God in every person are readily apparent in his words and actions. Gabe was first drawn to North Korea as a result of the famine in the 1990's, and the humanitarian need created by that event: "As Christians, we are called to help the needy. To ignore people in need is a direct violation of the command of Jesus," Gabe says.

The famine is not the crisis it once was, but Gabe has continued his work because North Korea "is a country that appreciates our assistance. They want to develop. When you're working with a mid-level official from the province, they're tasked with making sure their people have what they need. When we're able to help, they're very appreciative." Today, Gabe sees his work as walking out the commandments of Christ in a place where most people see that as an impossible task.

Gabe sees his work with Love North Korea Ministries as walking out the commandments of Christ in a place where most people see that as an impossible task.

Gabe Segoine / Photo by Bridget Butler

A long-time surfer, one impossible task Gabe took on was to start to bring surfing to North Korea. After two failed attempts to surf the North Korean coastline on his own, Gabe felt God calling him to use his passions both for the sport and for relationship-building to develop a surf camp for the North Korean locals. The following year, in partnership with an organization called Surfing the Nations, Gabe brought a dozen North Koreans to the pristine coastline and helped to introduce them to surfing for the very first time. Even the bus driver ended up catching some waves on a boogie board.

As someone who moves between the United States and North Korea, Gabe has a unique perspective. "We don't have the religious freedom in North Korea that we have elsewhere, but we can certainly live the way God intends us to live," he says. "We want to show God's love through our actions. We have to trust God for the future. We're there to build relationship and bridges for that future." The peace and certainty in Gabe's voice when he speaks of this future reminds me of the prayer written in memory of Archbishop Oscar Romero, A Step Along the Way, in which the writer reminds us that, "We are prophets of a future not our own."

Perhaps Gabe's ability to see past the divisive and inflammatory rhetoric surrounding North Korea's relationship with the United States lies in is his own relationships with North Koreans. "We (in the U.S.) tend to think that all North Koreans hate us…we're educated to see North Korea as this big, evil thing. But when you meet people and have a person-to-person engagement, that's not what you find."

Photo by Bridget Butler

One of Gabe's surfing tours took place during a holiday season, and there were hundreds of people on the beach where Gabe and his tour leaders were teaching their North Korean camp participants how to surf. Over the course of the morning, two young men on the beach—not from the surfing camp—showed a particular interest in the sport, and kept coming over to talk with the tour leaders. Each time, one of the North Korean men would ask a different member of the team, "Where are you from?" Each time the answer was, "I'm from America, we're your friends!" And each time, the young man would shake his head and walk away.

As Gabe describes the interaction, his face softens and he says the young man was clearly confounded. Taught that Americans hate him and want to kill him, yet seeing them there in board shorts teaching people how to surf, "he was confronted with the human-to-human reality, and really struggling." After an hour of surfing, as the man and his friend prepared to leave the beach, he walked up to one of the team members, shook his hand, and said, "Thank you very much." Gabe has seen this sort of transformation play out dozens of times over the course of his work in North Korea. Whether the context is surfing or more traditional humanitarian work, the message he brings is clear: "We are people who care about you, and we happen to be American Christians."

Whether the context is surfing or more traditional humanitarian work, the message Gabe brings is clear: "We are people who care about you, and we happen to be American Christians."

The recent travel restrictions have been particularly painful to Gabe and others like him, since they are now virtually cut off from the relationships and human engagement that have been transformative in their own lives. And the travel restrictions come at a particularly strange time, since cultural exchanges (like the surfing tours led by Gabe) had actually become easier under Kim Jong-un, North Korea's current leader.

"The beginning of change is in person-to-person engagement," says Gabe. "We have seen this throughout history," in places like China and Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

One important thing for Americans to understand, especially American Christians, is that there is more going on in North Korea than we can possibly imagine. "People are shocked when they hear about the market economy in North Korea, as well as all the engagement we can do," Gabe says. Labor camps and political prisoners, while they still exist, do not tell the entire story of North Korea, any more than the United States' inhumane approach to imprisonment tells ours. The current regime has also made a concerted effort to care for orphans by building new orphanages and renovating old ones. And the military has re-allocated resources towards building infrastructure and responding to natural disasters.

If we depend on mainstream media to understand the situation, Gabe says, we will get an inaccurate and narrow story. He suggests a few resources to help people get started in developing a fuller picture:

  • Louis Cole filmed his participation in a North Korean surfing tour. Gabe points out that, obviously, this is a narrow view of what happens in North Korea (i.e. the surfing tour doesn't include a trip to a prison or work camp) but demonstrates a little of what is possible. Gabe led the group, and verifies that nothing in the video series was staged.
  • Andrei Lankov is a Russian scholar and an expert on North Korea. He has written numerous books and articles and is extremely knowledgeable about the workings of North Korea.
  • Gabe recommends Daily NK as a source for more balanced and nuanced coverage of North Korea.
  • And finally, Gabe's top recommendation: "If there's a field worker from North Korea speaking at a church, go and listen. They are the best source of information. The policy makers here don't necessarily connect with the people working on the ground inside North Korea."

Gabe urges his fellow Americans to craft their impressions and opinions about North Korea in fair and balanced ways. "I'm for human rights, everywhere, all the time," he says. "So ask: 'What can I do'?" And for Christians, our task should be to say, "This is who we are; this is what we're about. How can we help?"

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Sarah Withrow King is the Deputy Director of Evangelicals for Social Action, the co-director of CreatureKind, and the author of two books, Animals Are Not Ours (No Really, They're Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology(Wipf & Stock) and Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith (Zondervan).

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