Peacebuilding as presence: MCC assignments in “enemy” contexts


Individual articles from the Summer 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog twice per week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website. This article consist of five reflections which will be posted separately.

Beginning with the decision by some MCC workers from the United States to remain in Vietnam after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country on March 29, 1973, one form MCC’s peace witness has taken has been a witness of presence within so-called “enemy” contexts. Such peace witness included placing graduate students behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War tasked with connecting to and supporting churches in the Eastern bloc, assigning aid workers to live and work in Iraq before and after the U.S. invasion of the country in 2002, placing more graduate students at an Islamic studies center in Qom, Iran, seconding staff to work with health ministries in Afghanistan and sending agronomists to make extended program support visits to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea). Below are reflections from MCC workers who were involved in such peacebuilding-as-presence initiatives on the joys and challenges they faced.—The editors.

DPRK (North Korea)

MCC’s provision of humanitarian assistance during the 1994 famine in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) initiated a quarter century relationship and over US$22 million in aid, assistance that has supported disaster responses, agricultural education and pediatric hospitals. While MCC has received wide recognition for this humanitarian work, we might also ask: Have these efforts furthered the “peace” element in MCC’s commitment to “relief, development, and peace in the name of Christ?” This question is critical in the context of MCC’s wider mission, as a lack of peace in the region has shaped life on the Korean peninsula for 70 years.

My work with MCC has introduced me to many North Koreans who are caring rather than threatening.

Prior to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the Korean peninsula thrived for 1,300 years, united under a distinctive culture and language. In the 70 years since, however, ten million Koreans have lived permanently separated from their families. A formal peace agreement to end the war was never signed, leaving the peninsula split by a heavily militarized border and a bilaterally-enforced ban on cross-border travel and communication. Despite near complete isolation from one another, the longing for eventual reunification runs deep on both sides of the divide.

With this broader geopolitical context in mind, I propose to consider how MCC’s 25 years of humanitarian work in North Korea has provided a platform for a reconciliatory “peace witness” in three critical ways: people-to-people contact between North Korea, the U.S. and Canada, advocacy with the U.S. government and education work in South Korea.

First, as in any deep national division, political peace is critical. The absence of a peace treaty is an enormous barrier to a new future in Korea. Yet lasting peace also requires the overlooked work that scholar Cecelia Clegg calls “societal reconciliation” (Clegg 84). Speaking from her research into healing in Northern Ireland, Clegg argues that “there is no substitute for . . . a sustained level of new contact, the act of deliberately seeking out a meeting or encounter with the [threatening] ‘other’” (90). Sustained contact is precisely where MCC’s North Korea work has mattered in relation to what Clegg calls “the will to find out the truth about the ‘other’ [as] an essential dynamic in any reconciling process” (89).

Amid a hostile climate that has often condemned positive engagement toward North Korea, MCC’s presence has been catalytic as one of only a handful of agencies with work on both sides of the border.

Mutual isolation has created profound misunderstanding between people in North Korea and the U.S. In North Korea, dominant “enemy narratives” of the U.S. include the U.S. military’s indiscriminate bombing during the war and the complicity of U.S. missionaries in violence. But MCC’s relief work has provided a different face of both U.S. citizens and Christians. Over many years of face-to-face monitoring visits, MCC delegations have shared the story of where MCC’s canned meat comes from—not a factory, but from the hands of tens of thousands of volunteers and churches across Canada and the United States.

These encounters also defy the narratives held by many Canadian and U.S. Anabaptist constituencies accustomed only to threatening images of North Koreans. My work with MCC has introduced me to many North Koreans who are caring rather than threatening. I think, for example, of a dedicated tuberculosis sanitorium director who, while compassionately caring for his patients, eventually contracted and succumbed to the disease himself, as well as government officials who witnessed the impact of a U.S. couple’s work with cerebral palsy and approved the construction of provincial pediatric rehabilitation centers.

A second critical dimension of MCC’s peace witness in North Korea is political advocacy. Even today, 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea. Economic and social collaboration on the peninsula is subject to the mercy of the United States. In 2017, the U.S. State Department banned travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea and the United Nations (under U.S. leadership) instituted sanctions severely limiting imports to North Korea. This threatened the sole avenues for aid to vulnerable North Korean people and endangered future diplomacy. Alongside other faith-based agencies, MCC engaged in direct advocacy to the U.S. government, pushing for humanitarian exemptions and to make signing a peace treaty a top priority in the ongoing U.S.-DPRK negotiations.

During a 1998 visit to Pyongyang, DPRK, MCC staff member Kevin King learns about medicinal plants from Mrs. Kim at the city’s Botanical Gardens. (Photo courtesy of Kevin King)

The third dimension of MCC’s peace witness on the Korean peninsula is its peace education in South Korea. Amid a hostile climate that has often condemned positive engagement toward North Korea, MCC’s presence has been catalytic as one of only a handful of agencies with work on both sides of the border. One South Korean pastor said his encounters with a Canadian agriculturalist who worked with MCC in DPRK “changed my concept about North Korea from missiles and ever-marching people of nationalistic madness to the same common people like us in South Korea.” Another young South Korean I know had grown up distant from the trauma of the Korean divide. Her indifference was challenged in college when she joined an InterVarsity Korea visit to the China-North Korea border. A boat ride to view the North offered her a sight many South Koreans never see: two North Koreans up close, two soldiers sitting on a beach. “One of them looked exactly like my brother,” she said. “Only then did I understand that we are one people.” This transformative experience led her to MCC’s IVEP program, an experience which shifted her career toward peacemaking. If, as described here, MCC humanitarian work in North Korea has become a platform for peace witness, we might ask: witness to what? Perhaps to what scholar Marc Gopin describes as a distinctly Anabaptist approach to peacebuilding where true transformation requires building new relationships over many years across divides. Such peace work bears witness to “the inherent moral value of building relationships” across divides and with adversaries where the “moment of relation becomes a moment of religious fulfillment, of imitatio dei, in [the case of Anabaptists] emulating Jesus. The person in relation becomes an end in herself” (Gopin, 242, 246). With U.S.-DPRK relations tense and fraught, such long-term relationship-building is more critical than ever.

Chris Rice is director of the MCC United Nations Office. Editorial assistance was provided by Abby Hershberger, communications and advocacy assistant at MCC’s UN Office in New York City.

Gopin, Marc. “The Religious Component of Mennonite Peacebuilding.” In From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to International Peacebuilding. Ed. John Paul Lederach and Cynthia Sampson, 233-255. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Rice, Chris. “Contested South Korean Identities of Reunification and Christian Paradigms of Reconciliation.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 42/2 (2018): 133-142.

Reconcilers. Blog for Chris Rice.