Building houses and building trust in North Korea

Posted on February 18, 2012 by VMMissions Staff

North Korea has burst into our awareness again recently with the death of their president, Kim Jong-il.

The world has watched as his young son, Kim Jong-un, is being elevated into leadership. This is a good time for us to be reminded that God’s Spirit is alive and present with the people of North Korea through these turbulent times.

I visited North Korea just 10 days before their president’s death. I joined five other volunteer builders from the Georgia-based Fuller Center for Housing. The intent of our mission was to build houses for the workers in a large tree nursery in the countryside outside of the capital Pyongyang. The Fuller Center had imported large building blocks made of concrete and recycled polystyrene which would yield highly insulated walls for the cold winters. While Fuller has projected to build many houses, the deeper goals are also to build trust and to build peace between us and the people of North Korea.

Virginia Mennonite Missions has been supporting this project with prayers, counsel, and the channeling of some funds. Anyone interested in offering support should contact VMM.

Our team discovered a spare, wintry countryside with many people walking to and from work on foot. Heating fuel is in short supply, so some of our meetings were held in frigid rooms. But the spirit we sensed from people there was warm and eager for friendship. When we offered the Korean greeting, “Anyong hasimika,” we received many curious gazes and warm smiles.

As it turned out, when we were there, the weather was too cold to permit our pouring concrete footers for houses, so we had to settle for demonstrating how to cut and stack the imported blocks like huge Lego blocks. Our hosts of the Academy of Architecture seemed quite pleased with the new technology. We hope other teams will carry the project forward.

In this very controlled society, we were surprised that they granted our request to visit a local market in the capital city. Being surrounded by hundreds of shoppers—ordinary folks buying noodles or tofu for supper, or gloves or pliers for their work—my heart was moved deeply for the people of this isolated and little-understood land.

My eyes met the eyes of a smiling red-smocked saleswoman and I wondered, “What had her father experienced during the Korean War back in the early 1950s?” Pyongyang and all the towns and cities of North Korea were leveled by bombs and napalm at that time. Thousands of American soldiers and several million Korean people died during that war. And now here are the children and grandchildren of the survivors of that war. “Oh God, I pray, never, never, never again let there be warfare between our people.”

We were unable to visit the one or two Protestant congregations in Pyongyang since our stay was shortened by a visa delay. But our hosts knew that our visit was sponsored by people of faith who believe that God intends goodness and wholeness for all people.

Sometimes our nations seem to believe that increased fear and threats will elicit respect and good behavior from others. But more often we see that a climate of fear only prompts defensive or even dangerous responses. This mission to reach out, people-to-people, assumes the opposite premise: that a reduction in the climate of fear and suspicion may allow us to find new paths of trust and working together for the well-being of us all.

Earl Martin, a Harrisonburg carpenter, worked many years in Asia with Mennonite Central Committee and is member of Shalom Mennonite Congregation.



David West, member of the Fuller Center team, demonstrates the insulated concrete blocks to members of the North Korean academy of architecture. From center left: civil engineer Kim Yung Jing, structural engineer Pak Un Hong, architect Ri Il O, and translator Jon Chang Hyon. Courtesy of author

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