Seoul (AsiaNews) – As the food crisis in North Korea goes from bad to worse, a small Christian NGO has opened three bakeries that are feeding the children of some 20 schools, one in the North Korean city of Sonbong, near the Chinese border.
“If we did not provide these buns the children would go hungry," said the charity's founder, South Korean-born George Rhee, who is quick to point out, “All of our food gets to the children. None goes to the North Korean army or government”.
The food crisis in North Korea is desperate. North Korean authorities have asked the South for 500,000 tonnes of rice and 300,000 tonnes of wheat in exchange for concessions on family reunifications.
After the election of Conservative President Lee Myung-bak, the North’s Stalinist regime refrained from asking for more aid. The recent request is a sign of how desperate the situation is in a country caught between a failing economic policy and the world’s embargo over its nuclear weapons programme.
Rhee, 52, is a minister in the Assemblies of God Church. He is also the founder of ‘Love North Korean Children’, an institution that grew out of his own childhood experiences.
As one of eight children, six brothers and a sister, he experienced the effects of his father's land reclamation business going bust. Penniless, his parents were forced to put him and his twin brother in a children's home, a cruel place where the children often went hungry. It was this that made Rhee decide that he wanted to help the children of North Korea.
At first, he wanted to open an orphanage, but the government would not let him. “They say North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is our father, so there is no need for orphanages. So then I decided to open a bakery," Rhee said.
Rhee first visited North Korea in 2002, and opened the charity's first bakery the following year, in Rajin, close to Sonbong. Now he also runs a bakery in Pyongyang, and this year opened a new bakery in Hyangsan. He also hopes to open more bakeries in North Korea.
His Christian faith has inspired his action. "There is a lot of interest in what we are doing. I am hopeful that we will be able to raise more money to open more bakeries," he said. "The North Korean government says we can. The only question is money," he added.
Given his firsthand experience, he is also in a position to confirm the stories coming out of the North. "I have even seen dead children in the streets. The situation for children in North Korea is terrible," he stressed.
Rhee also strongly backs South Korea’s tough line, as he believes most of the South Korean charities were naive, unable or unwilling, to prevent the North Korean government from diverting much of the food they provided to its million-strong army.
"I support President Lee Myung-bak in this," Rhee said. "These South Korean organisations were foolish" in not monitoring where food and other supplies were going.