Church of the Brethren Sends Delegation to North Korea

“Celebrating the Church of the Brethren’s 300th Anniversary in 2008″

(Feb. 20, 2008) — To help North Koreans boost agricultural production and equip their country to avert periodic famine, the Church of the Brethren entered into partnership with a cluster of farm cooperatives in 2004. In the intervening years the productivity of the farms has virtually doubled.

Through grants from its Global Food Crisis Fund, the Church of the Brethren assists small-scale farmers in poor countries around the world to strengthen food security by launching sustainable agricultural programs. The four farm cooperatives in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea have become an annual grant recipient, farms that were designated by their government for rehabilitation in order to feed and house their residents–15,000 people.

Located two hours south of Pyongyang, the capital city, the farm operations caught the attention of North Korea leader Kim Jong Il, who this past December visited one of the communities and publicly commended its use of advanced farming techniques. He promised to make a return visit to the community this fall.

Kim Jong Il’s government has established state quotas that give priority to the growing of cotton, a crop that has been introduced with some success on the four farms. Other key produce on the farms are rice, corn, wheat, barley, fruit, and vegetables. The farms have led the way in introducing improved varieties of produce and demonstrating double-cropping and the interplanting of crops.

In a country where 80 percent of the terrain is mountainous, and where fuel and fertilizer are in dire supply, advances in agriculture are hard to come by. Drought and floods periodically take their toll. Last August several days of torrential rain reduced by 60 percent what showed promise of being a record yield.

In an act yet rarely extended to people from the United States, a delegation from the Church of the Brethren was invited to visit the four farm enterprises and to tour cultural landmarks in the DPRK. The first to visit was Bev Abma, director of programing for the Foods Resource Bank, in mid-December. The rest of the delegation–Timothy McElwee of the peace studies program of Manchester College, North Manchester, Ind.; Young Son Min, pastor of Grace Christian Church, Hatfield, Pa., a congregation of the Atlantic Northeast District; and Howard Royer, Elgin, Ill., manager of the Global Food Crisis Fund of the Church of the Brethren General Board–were guests for seven days in January. Two other North Americans joined the January contingent, mission administrators from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod: Carl Hanson, based in Hong Kong, and Patrick O’Neal, working from Seoul, South Korea.

Pilju Kim Joo, president of Agglobe Services International, and Kim Myong Su, vice president of Korea Unpasan General Trading Corporation, hosted the delegation. Agglobe is the instrument through which the Global Food Crisis Fund has channeled over $800,000 in relief and development grants to North Korea since 1996. Unpasan is a North Korea trading company with whom Agglobe has entered into a joint venture for managing the four farm programs.

Beyond cooperation in agriculture, Brethren delegation members were intent on reconciliation, taking whatever steps appropriate to help ease 60 years of estrangement between the US and North Korea. They found common cause in a Sunday morning worship service with the Chilgol Christian Church, one of two Protestant churches in Pyongyang. The minister preached on 2 Corinthians 5, the call for believers in Christ to be ambassadors of reconciliation. The music underscored the call. One personal salvation hymn with the refrain “Do not pass me by” spoke poignantly when cast in the context of North Korea’s place in the global Christian community. A choral anthem, “Bringing in the Sheaves,” sung with gusto by the church choir, was a reminder of our interaction under way. In sum, the service belied the sentiment that North Koreans are insular and indifferent to outsiders.

A vexing question for a delegation from a peace church is what message can we share with a garrison state that has long regarded the military as its foremost institution. Clearly a beginning is to listen and learn, and to cultivate relationships. Further, the Church of the Brethren has earned credibility and leverage within the DPRK that it is challenged to exercise well. One of our aspirations is to broaden the Christian witness by encouraging other church bodies and agencies–the Foods Resource Bank, sister denominations, ecumenical agencies, Korean-American groups–to seek out opportunities of becoming engaged with North Koreans.

In one realm, food security, donations of greenhouse technology, irrigation and wells, seed supplies, fertilizer, chemical inputs, and livestock will indeed help North Koreans turn around stagnant levels of agricultural production.

On a broader scale, a paramount need is for the world and for Americans in particular to gain a deeper understanding of what University of Chicago scholar Bruce Cummings calls the “otherness” of North Koreans. That is, to seek to understand the foundation of the national pride and cultural distinctions that North Koreans treasure. To grasp why they hold their late former leader, Kim Il Sung, in such reverence, bestowing upon him not only the mandate of heaven but the sense of an ever-living presence; to put in context why they have long been so distrustful of foreign intervention; to affirm their yearning for Koreans, north and south, to be united as one family.

At this juncture it appears the US and North Korea may be on the path to a new diplomacy that could put aside decades of antagonism. A lot of what North Korea is about today revolves around “three Rs”–rehabilitation, reconciliation, and reunification. Pray that the Christian movement be attentive to and respectful of a North Korea that both resists and pursues change.

–Howard Royer is manager of the Global Food Crisis Fund for the Church of the Brethren General Board.


The Church of the Brethren Newsline is produced by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of news services for the Church of the Brethren General Board. Rhonda Pittman Gingrich contributed to this report. Newsline stories may be reprinted if Newsline is cited as the source. To receive Newsline by e-mail go to Submit news to the editor at For more Church of the Brethren news and features, subscribe to “Messenger” magazine; call 800-323-8039 ext. 247.