Public Health Outreach in North Korea: Transforming Skepticism to Joy

July 18, 2018

By Esther Im

This article is part of an ongoing series of spotlights on how Americans are engaging North Korea through humanitarian work and people-to-people exchanges. Read our previous spotlights here.

When Heidi Linton first started working with Christian Friends of Korea (CFK), a nonprofit organization established in 1995 to respond to a deepening humanitarian crisis in North Korea, she volunteered her time here and there as her young children napped or went to school. As Heidi’s involvement with the organization grew, she made her first trip to North Korea in 1998. She was gripped by the situation on the ground, the historical context, and the needs of the people she encountered. Even if she and CFK could not do a lot to improve the overall situation, Heidi knew that if they could do as much as they could and help some people, it would be worth it. In 2002, the board of CFK asked her take on a leadership role and she has been serving as the Executive Director since.

Since 1995, Christian Friends of Korea has been working to help, “ordinary people affected by flooding, disease, malnutrition, and ongoing challenges in North Korea.” In recent years, CFK’s work has focused on providing comprehensive support for public health challenges in the country, particularly in the areas of tuberculosis (TB) and hepatitis care. Such support includes not only medical diagnostics and treatment, but also sustainable and comprehensive aid to patients and care centers such as providing clean water, greenhouses, facility renovations, hygiene kits, and basic food and nutritional support. CFK works with the Ministry of Public Health to help more than 30 care centers including the National Tuberculosis Reference Laboratory (NRL), the National Hepatitis Reference Laboratory, 7 provincial TB and hepatitis hospitals, and about 20 TB and hepatitis rest homes located throughout the southwestern region of North Korea.

Heidi and her team, which usually ranges from 12-18 US and non-US citizens, travel to North Korea about four times a year, spending about 90 days in-country annually. Two of the trips usually focus on implementing technical projects like installing water systems or renovating a lab. In the other two trips, the CFK team travels across multiple sites and provinces to confirm the arrival and distribution of their humanitarian shipments and to get an update about local needs and conditions. Since 2016, these visits also include hepatitis diagnostic and treatment clinics where several hundred patients are evaluated and/or started onto life-saving treatment.

Heidi says that the most rewarding aspect of her work has been hearing the stories of patients whose lives have dramatically improved because of a water system her team installed, medication they have provided, or a greenhouse they have built. “I can see it in their faces, their eyes, their skin, and their movements. It can be dramatic. To give someone their life back is so huge. To give them back to their family...”

Moreover, the process of Americans and North Koreans working together to achieve a common goal leaves an indelible mark on both sides, and the experience of witnessing change and the transformation of relationships drives CFK’s work forward. Heidi shared that working in North Korea requires partnership and relationship-building. If CFK staff and volunteers are implementing a water project, for example, they are often spending three or four days working side by side with several dozen North Korean partners, digging trenches and laying pipes from sunrise until sundown. There is no substitute for the value produced by the time spent together, and from ultimately witnessing the fruits of their labor:

“It starts modestly – they want water to the kitchen and lab. And then they begin to realize what this will mean and look like… The really exciting time is when the water pump goes down the well and the solar panels start pumping the water into the tank. The tap is turned on and they see water coming out of a place they’ve never had water before and it's clean. It’s so exciting. You’ve gone from skepticism to joy and partnership. It's really a special engagement that carries over to later visits. They tell you all about what that water has done for them, about the vegetables they've been able to grow and show the building improvements they’ve been able to make [since they have water] to mix cement. To witness that is [to be a] part of organic change and that’s a beautiful thing.” 

Heidi admits that the first few years working in North Korea were extremely challenging, and that new challenges related to sanctions, fundraising, and logistics continue to arise in their work today. However, she says, “You can’t think a setback on one trip is lasting or permanent. If it's all about us and what we accomplish then it's easy to be discouraged and give up. If it's something bigger than us and that God is in this – then it’s a matter of faith in God that He will work all things…according to His purposes.” 

“Ultimately,” she says, “it’s a walk of faith.”


Written from an interview with Heidi Linton on June 20, 2018. All photographs are copyright of Christian Friends of Korea.