Children at a school in North Korea eat steamed buns prepared by Love North
Korean Children, a British-based group that operates bakeries in the North.
/ Courtesy of Love North Korean Children
By Kim Young-jin
As the international community wrestles with how to help the hungry North
Korean population, a U.K.-based group says it has gained new levels of access
in its goal to deliver bread to children there.
George Rhee, head of Love North Korean Children, said his three bakeries in
the North feed some 9,000 children daily and his ability to monitor
operations ensures that bread gets to those targeted to receive it.
“I know that 100 percent of our bread gets to the children because I watch it
go in their mouths,” said Rhee, a Briton of Korean descent, during a recent
interview in Seoul. “These children need something to eat for lunch.”
The issue of transparency has come to the fore as the United States and E.U.
deliberate over whether to approve the North’s recent appeals for food.
Washington has said its decision partly hinges on the access it gets.
The United Nations estimates that some 6 million North Koreans are in dire
need of food.
Rhee frequently visits the bakeries, located in the special economic zone of
Rajin-Sonbong, Hyangsan in North Pyongan Province and Pyongyang, to make sure
the food is delivered to the target schools and that flour and other supplies
are shipped in from China.
The rest of his time is spent raising funds, a job that promises to become
even busier _ he plans to open two more bakeries in September.
Rhee immigrated from the South over twenty years ago to further his studies.
However, he had some deeply personal business still left on the peninsula.
One of the dying wishes of his father, who escaped from the North during the
1950-53 Korean War, was to one day visit his homeland. Though the wish went
unfulfilled, Rhee himself was able to do so in 2001, visiting Rason as a
tourist and bringing his father along in spirit.
What he saw left him in shock.
“I saw children going hungry and old ladies selling goods in the market in
the bitter cold,” he said. “After that I decided I needed to help people
In September, his personal journey will reach a milestone as one of the new
bakeries is located in Haeju, South Hwanghae Province, his father’s hometown.
North Korean women staff his bakeries but each location has one or two
Korean-Chinese managers who are Rhee’s eyes and ears when he is not there.
The cooking itself is as utilitarian as it gets; the buns are steamed,
Chinese-style, to save electricity. They are prepared without the traditional
bean filling, as Rhee realized funds were better spent on more flour.
The bread is delivered by his staff to a list of schools _ from nursery to
middle schools _ jointly selected by Rhee and local authorities. The process
maximizes access to children in the tightly-controlled country, far more than
nearly all South Korean and international aid groups, he said.
Some say rice delivered by U.N. officials often gets diverted to the army and
that South Korean NGOs, which need Seoul’s approval to do their work, lack
the mobility to ensure the food goes where it’s supposed to.
But the North has been receptive to Rhee’s initiative, partly, he thinks,
because of his citizenship in the U.K. which maintains relations with
Pyongyang. Rhee believes it is also because the government wants to see the
group succeed and food go to the children.
“Aid activities for children have become more transparent,” he said. “That’s
something I am proud of.”
North Korea has been receptive to his recent request, that the Pyongyang
bakery supplies bread to the outskirts, not the city proper where better-off
families of officials live.
Rhee, who recently opened a branch office in Seoul, appealed to South Koreans
for donations. Fund-raising efforts here have been difficult in the wake of
recent political altercations between the Koreas. The major share of funding
still comes from the Korean-British community.
“I very much hope that as people in the South get to know our organization
better and the access we have in North Korea that we’ll get more response to
our fund-raising efforts.”
He said given the proper funding, he would expand to as many areas as
possible. His goal is to build a bakery in each of the 26 geographic
districts in North Korea.
Despite his efforts, Rhee said his mission remains an intimidating uphill
battle given the difficult food situation.
Still, on trips to the schools, he never fails to deliver fresh bread with a
smile and a positive message.
“I ask them if they know where the United Kingdom is. Then I tell them, this
bread is from the U.K. and Korean people there,” he said. For more
information on Love North Korean Children, visit www.nkchildren.org.