Loaves of Love
Rev. George Rhee has opened four bakeries in North Korea, feeding thousands of school children daily.
by Kathleen Richards
For George Rhee, hunger is personal. When he was a child, his parents turned him and his twin brother over to the care of a South Korean orphanage, after the father’s land reclamation business failed and the parents couldn’t afford to feed all of their eight children. During their time at the orphanage, Rhee said he and his brother were treated cruelly and often went hungry.
That kind of suffering is something he believes no child should ever have to experience. It’s a conviction that helps explain why Rhee, a London-based pastor, decided to start a charity that feeds children in need. What perhaps makes his philanthropy all the more remarkable is that these children are in North Korea, where Rhee’s late father was born and where his father last saw his two sisters from whom he was separated during the Korean War. Rhee said he has always longed to fulfill his father’s lifetime wish to find his aunts. Short of that, he is trying to help feed those most vulnerable in North Korea, which has long suffered from food shortages—and a famine in the 1990s—since the fall of the Soviet Union, its once closest ally.
Since 2006, Rhee, through his British charity Love the North Korean Children, has opened four bakeries—in Songbong, Pyongyang, Hyangsan and, as of just last month, Sariwon—feeding an estimated 15,000 school children daily. The bakeries produce more than 10,000 pieces of bread each day, six days a week, Rhee said.
The Chinese-style buns are made with flour, which is shipped from China, and steamed. There is no traditional bean filling in order to maximize the limited funds. North Korean women staff the bakeries, with a couple of Korean-Chinese managers overseeing the operation for Rhee, who visits periodically. The buns are delivered to a list of pre-approved nursery, elementary and middle schools.
“Everybody in North Korea receives food supplies from the government to last three months,” said Rhee. “But people in rural areas only have food for one month. They have to go to the countryside to hunt tree bark or corn. That’s why kids have to have these meals; otherwise, they wouldn’t have anything else to eat.”
The aid comes at a crucial time for North Korea, where flooding, high food prices and continued sanctions against the nuclear-armed nation have created conditions for a severe food shortage. The United Nations World Food Programme estimates that more than 6 million people in North Korea need food assistance. Last fall, a statement by five U.S. NGOs said “sufficient evidence exists to inform us that a catastrophic situation is developing in regards to food security, severe acute malnutrition and slow starvation.”
Two of the largest past donor nations to the North, the U.S. and South Korea, have not been providing large-scale aid due to increased tensions with Pyongyang over the nuclear issue and alleged acts of aggression by the North against South Korea. Late last month, however, after U.S. and North Korean officials met for the first time since dictator Kim Jong-il’s death last December and since his son, Kim Jong-un, took power, the U.S. State Department announced a major breakthrough. North Korea agreed to allow the return of nuclear inspectors and to implement a moratorium on a variety of nuclear activities, including nuclear tests and uranium enrichment. In return, the U.S. will provide the North with a large food aid package.
Meanwhile, Rhee said, the food situation in North Korea is worsening. “It has not leveled off, and it certainly is not getting better,” he said. “They need much help.”
Acknowledging the concern over transparency in ensuring food aid does not get diverted, Rhee said that he is confident “the children are receiving our bread because we are a small NGO, working under the political radar, and working directly with the individual community leaders and schools.” The fact that his NGO is UK-based may also help in his ability to operate in the North, said Rhee, since Britain has an embassy in North Korea, whereas the U.S. does not.
Rhee, who grew up in Seoul and immigrated to Britain 20 years ago, said he hopes he can eventually open several more bakeries, but he admits that funding is an uphill battle. About 90 percent of the NGO’s funding comes from the United Kingdom, which includes the Christian aid organizations Barnabas Fund and Cross Pollinate Foundation. The rest comes from individual donors and churches in the UK and South Korea, and about 2 percent comes from individuals in the United States.
“We do want more support from America,” said Rhee. “The relations between America and North Korea are strained, but that is the way it is with many nations in this troubled world.
“It is the call to each individual, regardless of their nationality: to feed and care for the orphans and widows. Hunger is not a political issue, it is a human reality, most especially in North Korea. That is what I am laboring for, to help in some way.”
This article was published in the March 2012 issue of ‘KoreAm’