First Steps photo/Rachelyn Ritchie

This 5-year-old boy is among 115 children at the South Pyongan Kindergarten Orphanage in Pyongsong, DPRK, who receive soymilk twice a day through MCC support. According to orphanage director Ms. Kim Ryo Il, the children are growing and gaining weight. MCC also has provided canned meat to orphanages in Pyongsong. The boy is not named for security reasons.

On Aug. 22, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S. submitted a public comment letter to the U.S. State Department outlining concerns with the restrictions on travel by U.S. citizens to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) that will begin Sept. 1.

The letter, signed by MCC U.S. Executive Director J Ron Byler, highlights MCC’s work in North Korea over the past 22 years; responding to disasters and providing assistance to orphanages, elderly care centers and tuberculosis and hepatitis care centers.

​MCC staff from the U.S. and Canada have visited North Korea regularly to implement and monitor projects without incident. But as the letter notes, the new travel restrictions, “will create enormous obstacles for MCC to continue assisting vulnerable populations in North Korea.”

Women and children stand outside their temporary homes in Musan County, DPRK, in 2016. Their homes were destroyed by flooding from Typhoon Lionrock that year. MCC provided relief kits and school kits to the displaced people as well as tin roofing to support rebuilding of daycare centers, kindergartens and clinics in the city of Yonsa. Approximately 4,200 children benefited from this project. MCC photo/John Lehmann

Building relationships in North Korea is an important part of MCC’s peacebuilding work. The letter states, “Especially during times of increased hostility, U.S. citizens must be allowed the freedom to pursue alternatives to conflict through human interactions which are an expression of their religious faith. Banning travel to North Korea will decrease the impact of one of the most important resources the U.S. has for pursuing a future of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula: human relationships.”

The letter notes that, “Serving vulnerable populations in North Korea is important to MCC supporters in the U.S. and is an expression of their religious beliefs concerning welcoming the stranger and seeking peace between enemies. For these reasons, we believe that restrictions on travel to DPRK undermine the chances for building a more positive future between the people of North Korea and the U.S.”

“The absence of U.S. citizens engaged in humanitarian work in DPRK will close off some of the few remaining avenues for dialogue with North Koreans that could pave the way for future diplomacy.”

- MCC U.S. letter to U.S. State Department

The letter continues, “The absence of U.S. citizens engaged in humanitarian work in DPRK will close off some of the few remaining avenues for dialogue with North Koreans that could pave the way for future diplomacy.”

With tension building between the U.S. and North Korea every week, avenues of engagement and dialogue are desperately needed and must remain open.