The last Americans in North Korea: Christian missionaries

The work of humanitarian groups has resurrected tough questions about giving aid to despot nations, a debate centered on whether assistance to the needy frees up state resources for corrupt purposes. In North Korea, the question is whether the help allows the regime to spend more money on nuclear arms that threaten the U.S. and its allies.

U.N. aid to North Korea has shrunk to $39 million, around a tenth of its 2001 total. A handful of U.S. Christian groups provide roughly $10 million in aid a year, public documents show. The groups navigate international sanctions and a U.S. travel ban to serve as one of the last channels of help for North Korea’s many poor, particularly its children, elderly and sick.

When Chris Rice 57, a Christian aid worker from North Carolina, arrived in Pyongyang, he found some of his peers staying at the same hotel. One was Stephen Linton, 67 years old, from the Eugene Bell Foundation, named for his great grandfather, a Presbyterian who began Korean missionary work in 1895. Rice, 57, runs a South Korea-based humanitarian program for the Mennonite Central Committee.

These humanitarians, eligible for exemptions to the U.S. travel ban, are among the last Americans who engage in face-to-face work between people of the two nations, which over the past year have swung between brinkmanship and, of late, the possibility of talks between the country’s two leaders.

The U.S. travel ban allows humanitarian workers to apply for permission on a case-by-case basis. In practice, the sanctions have made aid work more difficult: Wary of running afoul of sanctions, transport companies are leery of taking goods to the North Korea border, and banks turn down requests to transfer money there, humanitarian workers said. Read more

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