Korean 'friends' operate from small Black Mountain warehouse

Paul Clark

The truck delivering a shipping container bound for North Korea was late, but Heidi Linton, executive director of Christian Friends of Korea in Black Mountain, wasn’t worried. The 20-foot container would be loaded Jan. 11 with building and medical supplies and tools – plus equipment for a tuberculosis lab - as scheduled, the start of its two-month voyage to the reclusive country. The truck’s being late seemed like a minor thing, judging from Linton’s calm.

Heidi Linton oversees the loading of the latest shipment of building supplies and medical equipment bound for North Korea.

Christian Friends of Korea is a significant provider of medical and technical help to North Korea. In 2008-09, CFK was one of five U.S. nongovernment organizations that oversaw a USAID-sponsored emergency food aid program credited with impacting the lives of more than 900,000 vulnerable children, elderly and pregnant/nursing women.

In the last 20 years, CFK has delivered more than $80 million in aid, including food, medicine, medical help, as well as lab equipment, blankets, renovation materials, greenhouses, small tractors, technical training, water well drilling, solar/water distribution systems and other relief goods. Since 2009, it has partnered with Stanford University School of Medicine and other professionals to establish the National TB Reference Laboratory, the first laboratory of its kind in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as North Korea is formally known.

Four times a year, for up to three and a half weeks, CFK volunteers make regular trips to the DPRK to make sure the aid is being used as it was intended (Linton, one of three fulltime CFK employees, was there for 91 days last year). Nearly 200 volunteers – doctors, plumbers and skilled technicians among them - from Black Mountain and elsewhere in the U.S. and world have participated in more than 70 technical and “confirming” visits to North Korea since 1995. Among dozens local residents who have gone overseas to help were the late Dr. John Wilson, who started the community garden in Black Mountain.

Heidi Linton

Black Mountain is CFK’s base largely because of historical reasons. Members of the Southern Presbyterian Church (now Presbyterian Church USA) started coming to Montreat more than a century ago, and from there, they commissioned many missionaries who did work in Korea and China (children of missionaries, John Wilson and Ruth Graham, Billy Graham’s late wife, went to school in Korea). Many later retired to Montreat, bringing with them knowledge and a fondness for Korea, making Black Mountain a good place to establish Christian Friends of Korea, Linton said.

CFK’s work grew out of Billy Graham’s visits to DPRK in 1992 and 1994, as well as more than a century of Protestant missionary work on the Korean Peninsula. In 1995, North Korea suffered a series of floods and droughts that led to widespread hunger and disease. The United Nations reports that more than 70 percent of the population is chronically food insecure. Food grown the previous year tends to run out by early summer, well before the main harvest in September. Winter wheat and barley harvest in June help, but they don’t go far in providing what the nation’s citizens need, she said.

Because of weakened immune systems, tuberculosis, an airborne disease, is the nation’s top health concern. “The numbers (of infected) continue to grow, despite the many people working to help,” she said.

CFK mainly provides services to treat children and to treat people suffering from tuberculosis and hepatitis. At tuberculosis facilities, it helps the staff improve patients’ health by providing seeds, tractors and commercial-size greenhouses. It provides the facilities with food, medicine, vitamins, basic hospital supplies and equipment and handmade goods to help patients stay warm, such as homemade blankets, hats, and quilts.

CFK made its most recent trip to North Korea in October-November. During the 27-day visit, volunteers visited hospitals and rest homes that the organization supports. They visited sites in the cities of Musan and Yonsa in which the organization has provided flood relief. They completed renovation of a hepatitis hospital lab and extended a water distribution system at a TB hospital.

This year, CFK plans to begin water projects at day care centers, train more workers to help hepatitis patients and set up a lab in the town of Kaesong, as well as work to support patients at at least 30 care centers.

North Korea allows humanitarian help in the country, but CFK volunteers in North Korea adhere to the country’s strict no-evangelism policy, Linton said.

“We’re very open with the North Koreans about what we do,” Linton said. “We can’t proselytize, but we can love people in Jesus’ name.” Volunteers don’t give out Bibles or religious tracts and are there to provide technical help only.

“We have an opportunity to change this perception of Americans and Christians,” Linton said, waiting for the truck to show up. “When they engage with real Americans, real Christians, they realize we’re human beings just like them, that we actually care. And that we’ll work really hard to make their lives better.”

CFK works in 30 locations in North Korea. Last year it worked “side by side” with North Koreans to renovate two hospitals, Linton said, equipping them with solar power and batteries to store produced energy.