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It feels like a minefield all its own to venture a single sentence in print about North Korea. In the era of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, whatever line might be true one moment may change—dramatically, catastrophically—before the ink has dried.
But there are people whose job and calling is to keep right on working while the heads of state rage on.
As the Kim regime gave the order for its 13th missile launch of the year, American Heidi Linton was crisscrossing North Korea’s mountains and rural valleys, covering more than 2,000 miles in two weeks to run clinics for TB and hepatitis B patients. For the 52-year-old mother of three, who 22 years ago began volunteering for the humanitarian aid group Christian Friends of Korea (CFK), managing medical work in arguably the world’s most restricted country is all in a day’s work. The August journey was her 54th trip to North Korea.
CFK is one of a handful of U.S. relief organizations, most Christian-led, that have forged working relationships with the communist dictatorship. Most started two decades ago when North Korea admitted it was experiencing a famine and asked for outside help. In the last six months, that work has become much harder, Linton admits.
‘We feel strongly that God has called us to do this work. It’s too hard otherwise.’
Under the Trump administration, tension with North Korea is at an all-time high, particularly after a record number of test missile launches this year, including North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile—a strategic weapon potentially capable of reaching U.S. soil sometime in the future. Also, after detained student Otto Warmbier was returned to the United States in a coma, and subsequently died, Trump moved to ban U.S. travel to North Korea.
Linton passed through passport control on her way out of the country the day before the ban took effect Sept. 1. A North Korean border official told her she was the last American to leave.
The Americans working in North Korea aren’t permanent residents, according to Linton, but work for weeks at a time there. Of about 200 American workers, 50 worked in a special economic zone near the Russian border, and most of the rest are Christian workers who teach or provide medical care.
Under the new ban, aid groups like CFK may apply for humanitarian exemptions in order to return. Those cost about $150 per person, and applying is no guarantee they will come through. For Linton’s next medical trip, scheduled in mid-October, that means submitting to the State Department a dozen passports and paperwork in September, with no idea whether the approvals will arrive in time for already planned travel. CFK will have to apply for the exemptions each time they travel to North Korea, with the ban set to last one year unless it’s extended. With new economic sanctions, supplies, too, are harder to get.
“We feel strongly that God has called us to do this work. It’s too hard otherwise,” said Linton.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said, “Diplomacy is best practiced in person.” Humanitarian work by groups like CFK is a small but steady bridge with North Korea in the absence of all diplomatic relations and nearly all commercial contact. With so many obstacles arrayed against Americans working in North Korea, what’s amazing is that anyone would continue to try.
Linton is firm about CFK’s plans to keep right on working, even if it’s riskier, costlier, and harder. “These are end-of-the-road places where we work. They are literally hard to get to, but also places no one steps into if we aren’t there,” she said. “But it’s important to realize it’s about more than medicine. It’s about relationships and trust that we have built.”
What makes it worthwhile? “The fact that we are making a difference in a lot of lives,” said Linton. “And that goes beyond the physical. We don’t hide the fact that we are Christians. This is about lifting up the name of Christ in North Korea, a name vilified there for decades. When you can’t preach the gospel, you have to share it through love and caring for people.”
Sometimes the hardest work in the hardest places is the work that’s hardest to stop.
This column has been corrected to reflect Heidi Linton’s early role with Christian Friends of Korea.