Beyond Bags of Food: A Glimpse Into the Lives of North Korean Children | Mission East

Beyond Bags of Food: A Glimpse Into the Lives of North Korean Children


Kendrah Jespersen counts bags of food aid in North Korea.
North Korean children eat food from Mission East.

Kendrah Jespersen from Mission East left for North Korea to count and control the food distribution. In the midst of all the numbers and the lists she met the ones it is all about: Human beings. Kendrah Jespersen is an experienced aid worker who has lived in or visited 49 countries.
 
Read her story here: 
 
"Sometimes it’s easy to forget the reasons behind the work we do.
 
The purpose of my visit to North Korea in December 2011 was to monitor our distribution of food to kindergartens, nurseries, orphanages and a paediatric hospital for young children living in one of the provinces that has suffered most from North Korea’s current food crisis. My task was to check that the food we have provided is reaching the people that need it most. Each day I visited storerooms to count bags of maize, spoke to cooks in school kitchens, and met roomfuls of North Korean children as they ate spoonfuls of maize-noodle soup or handfuls of puffed maize snacks.
 
Immersed in numbers 
In the midst of this task of monitoring, at times I became immersed in the numbers: kilograms of maize, grams of nutritional supplement, days of rations, number of children, etc. At other times, I found myself thinking deeply about the bigger picture: about politics, economics, freedom, and choice. There were many things I found difficult to understand; North Korea is a context so different to what we know in Europe today.
 
Between the technical details and the philosophical bigger picture, there was something very important I tried to pause and remember: people.
 
An old woman with heavy burdens 
Here are a few moments, encounters, and images from my time in North Korea which made a particular impression on me:
 
Along the roadside one day, I remember seeing an elderly grandmother pulling a wagon through the snow, loaded with cabbages just brought in from the harvest. She was just one of so many in a seemingly incessant stream of people moving long distances with heavy burdens by foot and bicycle each day through the North Korean countryside. I don’t know where she was bringing her load, but perhaps she was one of those who live in rural areas (and therefore have garden space) who bring vegetables from their gardens to their relatives in the cities. She was hunched over, her back deformed in a way that made me think she has been pulling this load for years.
 
On the top of her load, sat a toddler wrapped up in a scarf so that all you could see were eyes, bouncing along on the cabbages - perhaps on her way through the snow and wind to be dropped off at nursery school. Images like this made me think about how difficult daily life in North Korea is for most people: that even simple things such as transportation or acquiring cabbages require great labour, persistence and resilience.
 
Listless girls 
On another day, at one of the nurseries I visited, I remember sitting on the floor next to two little girls, about two years old as they snacked on some popped corn full of protein made with the maize we provided. There was one large bowl of popped corn sitting at some distance away from the girls, so I took a large handful and brought it closer to the girls so they would eat. They were clearly not in good health. They seemed listless and disinterested in anything, and only took notice of the food when I held it directly in front of them. I don’t know the exact health status of these girls, but this listlessness is a common consequence of under-nutrition.
 
The staff at some of the institutions we visited said that they’ve observed that the children have become much livelier and healthier in the last weeks, as the harvest has started coming in, and Mission East’s supplementary food has arrived. As I watched the girls slowly eat one piece of corn at a time, each time at my encouragement, I hoped that these children will soon be back to a normal status: alert, inquisitive, interactive and playful – as every child has the right to be.
 
A touching story of compassion 
At an orphanage we visited, I heard a beautiful story of care and sacrifice. The director told us about one of the nurses who was caring for a particularly malnourished child during the worst part of the food shortage this spring. The child was in very poor health and not showing signs of recovery.
 
During this period, grain rations were severely restricted, and the supply of additional foods like vegetables and soy were sporadic. Some were able to get by during these lean times through various coping mechanisms. They could go out to collect wild herbs or go fishing. Or perhaps they had relatives living on a collective farm who would bring them vegetables from their garden. But for these children in the orphanage, their options are limited.
 
The nurse, distressed about the poor status of the child she cared for, decided to bring a fish from her own meagre stocks at home to give this child the protein intake he needed to bring him back to full health. I was touched by her compassion.
 
The same human struggle 
Ultimately, no matter where in the world we live, we all face the same human struggle to bring food to our table and care for the ones we love. But for some this struggle is far more difficult, while others of us have countless opportunities open to us beyond daily survival.
This food assistance during a critical time of need has been one small contribution to alleviate the struggle for North Korea’s most vulnerable ones. I hope these vulnerable children will one day have the same opportunities that I have had in my life."