North Korea’s recent decision to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics comes at a time when the country has arguably never been more isolated from the West. Recent actions and counteractions between the United States and North Korea have led to unprecedented tensions in a long-strained relationship. The State Department issued a travel ban that forced about 200 Americans working there to leave before it went into effect, and more recently, the United Nations initiated new sanctions against the country.
Despite the risks and restrictions—some of which have been ongoing for decades—American Christians have found ways to minister to North Koreans in need. For some, it means teaching young people at the evangelical-founded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. For Heidi Linton, who serves as the director of Christian Friends of Korea (CFK), it means serving gravely sick North Koreans.
CFK describes its mission as sharing “God’s heart of love and grace to the North Korean people primarily within the context of tuberculosis and hepatitis.” “These are both very serious diseases in North Korea that affect hundreds of thousands—probably millions,” said Linton, who has been working in the country since the mid-1990s.
Linton, along with her American team members, must now secure special validation passports to continue working in North Korea. She spoke recently with CT about her family’s long connection to North Korea, her personal relationships with citizens of the closed country, and the role Billy Graham played in catalyzing CFK’s work.
To what extent has fear factored into your work?
How can you avoid fear when it comes to North Korea? That said, I cling to the verse in 1 John 4:18 that says, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear.” None of us in our own strength can ever love perfectly, but the Holy Spirit working through us can show God’s perfect love to the North Korean people.
This last August [after North Korea ran new ballistic and nuclear tests] was a very intense time for CFK. We sat ourselves down and said, “Are we supposed to be going back in August?” We called our board of directors together for prayer and discussion over two days, and team members also talked with their families. We laid out several criteria—this needs to happen by this date, and that needs to happen by that date. If these things come together, then we will go. They did all come together, we had a productive trip, and God gave us peace while we were there. We ended up going back in October, as well.
This has been a walk of faith from the very beginning, and that’s hard to define sometimes. You read Hebrews 11 [where it says “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”], and there are many, many examples of how confusing and difficult that can be in the moment. Yet God is faithful.
What is your organization’s connection to Billy Graham?
Billy Graham wanted to go to North Korea in the early ’90s. My brother-in-law had made a visit to North Korea and maintained relationships with the North Koreans at the UN Mission in New York, so he made some introductions, and then he and others were involved in negotiating and helping to organize Dr. Graham’s early visits.
My husband’s uncle—he was a lifelong missionary to Korea who later served on the board of CFK for many years—interpreted for Dr. Graham when he spoke at churches and at Kim Il-sung University and other places. Graham and his team met then-president Kim Il Sung, who declared that they were “friends of Korea.” After we realized there was a real need in North Korea for ongoing humanitarian assistance, my husband and his brother joined with three other board members and founded what became Christian Friends of Korea. We now have different partners and volunteers across the US and globally.
What initially catalyzed your work in North Korea?
We initially began working in 1995 during the famine years—from 1994 to 1998—and we started by sending food. Not long after, we got a request to send an ambulance, so we put one together. Part of the funding for this project came from an honor (including a monetary prize) my mother-in-law had been given for her work with tuberculosis in South Korea. When they found out about that, [our contacts in North Korea] said, “Oh, we have a tuberculosis problem. Could you help us with that?” It really was just sort of a door that God opened to us, and we walked through it.
Obviously, treating these types of diseases in North Korea is extremely challenging. How has the risk and complexity changed in recent years?
The past year has been particularly difficult. The travel ban, which took effect on September 1, has been part of that, although we’ve been able to navigate it. But there have been issues with new sanctions, which impact lots of different aspects of our work. Whenever you raise sanctions on a country, third parties that we have to do business with in order to deliver humanitarian aid in North Korea start to get very nervous. This work has always been difficult, but now we’re at an unprecedented level of complexity. Humanitarian activities are being seriously jeopardized, and Christian organizations like ours face additional challenges.
What is your own family’s relationship to Korea?
I married into my husband’s family, and his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all missionaries in Korea. His great-grandfather, Eugene Bell, went to Korea as a Presbyterian missionary in 1895, and the family has had a presence in Korea ever since then. So we’re going on 123 years, now. Most of them speak the language very fluently, and they certainly have a deep understanding and appreciation for the culture and the people, the context and the history.
Are there other missionary connections for CFK?
In the Black Mountain/Montreat area of North Carolina, where CFK is headquartered, there were many retired missionaries to Korea who returned from the mission field and settled here. We ended up establishing our organization here in part because of all these wonderful people who really understood Korea and knew its language and culture. We used to bring the North Korean officials down here from New York to visit them. It was sort of their home away from home because they would have dinner in these people’s homes and speak their own language and begin to understand how much these people really loved their country. Many of these retired Korea missionaries had known their country before it was a North and a South, before it was divided. That resonated on another level, as well.
When did you first sense God’s call to North Korea?
I would have never dreamed of working in North Korea in my 20s. Although I had known many Koreans in college and high school, it wasn’t really on my radar screen. But when I married, I began to learn a lot more about Korea. When I went to North Korea for the first time, it grabbed my heart. The needs were overwhelming. I had already been involved in the work for three years as a volunteer, helping with newsletters and communications with donors and that kind of thing. But it was transformative to actually visit the country, meet ordinary North Koreans, and follow God’s lead in understanding how we could potentially help.
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Source: Christianity Today