Over the past year and a half, working inside North Korea has become more difficult than ever. This is not only for us at LNKM but for all of the aid organizations working in the country, including UN aid agencies. From projects like our well drilling to medical work among those infected with TB to those helping children with special needs, US NGOs and even international NGOs have been severely hindered.
At the same time North Korea remains open to our coming. It would be an understatement to say we never thought our work would be hindered by our own government. This is the unfortunate reality we face, but at the same time we trust that God has a plan. The good news is that all sides are still talking. President Trump and Kim Jung-un have tentative plans for a second summit early next year. Through all the political maneuvering and brinkmanship, we need to trust God the most. And through it all, we have continued to do our work inside North Korea to the best of our abilities. It’s a bit long but below is our year-end report of how things have gone both for LNKM and our family.
North Korea Travel Ban and US/UN Sanctions
In spite of the Singapore Summit between President Trump and Kim Jung-un, the current situation between the US and North Korea is not stable. Since the North continues to maintain the position that a peace accord should be in place before they denuclearize, the US position has been to stop every sort of engagement including humanitarian aid.
Even though their actions might say otherwise, the US government continues to maintain that US based NGOs can operate inside North Korea with proper licensing. The main license we need to get is from the US Treasury Department, called the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) license. This OFAC license is supposed to allow us to legally move money through the international banking system. On August 6 the UN issued an exemption option for NGOs to continue humanitarian work inside North Korea. Both the UN exemption application as well as the OFAC license require not only a lot of work on our part but also cost in legal fees. Since navigating the UN and US bureaucracy is so difficult, we retained a lawyer who specializes in North Korea to help. He is helping at a reduced rate, however time and resources are being used, which are not going to the cause of helping local North Korean people. Our hope and prayer is that the time and expense would not be wasted.
Unfortunately the US government continues to ban travel to NK. Special passports for travel to the country had been issued to some US based NGO workers, but on a very limited basis. At present, the US State Department has not been granting them any to any US citizens for any purpose. This position seems to be softening a bit with the State Department now saying they will consider granting them to humanitarian workers as long as the NGO has jumped through all the hoops. So our best chance is to obtain the OFAC license and UN exemption first and then apply for the passports. Fortunately we have partners who are not US citizens who continue the work in NK. While we are very thankful for these partnerships, we do hope to be able to go again to North Korea in the near future.
Before the last round of North Korea sanctions was put into place, our well drilling team imported a load of supplies from China including well casing, drill bits and water pumps. The good news is that with those supplies in place, they were able to drill into the 2018 season and completed 8 wells. However, by the end of the summer the supplies had been depleted and they could no longer drill. Unfortunately, the main items we need to import from China are made of metal (steel well casing, steel drill bits, and metal pumps) which is a sanctioned material. So we are effectively dead in the water so to speak until either the sanctions are lifted or we obtain the UN exemption to do the work.
From 2014-2017 we were blessed to have been able to run 4 surf camps and 1 ski/snowboard camp in North Korea. All of those teams were led by Americans and with all US citizens now restricted from traveling to the country, there has been no way to continue these exchanges. There may be an alternative to surfing trips to the North though. As the North and South Korean governments have been talking about sports-cultural exchanges and as a possible alternative to going into NK, instead of our going there, we will be looking into the possibility of bringing North Korean surfers to South Korea. We would also invite our international friends who have been part of the surfing teams in NK. This would be presented as an international sports-cultural exchange promoting peace and reconciliation. The earliest it might happen would be next spring or summer. It might take a miracle to make it happen, but we are excited about the possibility.
Chongjin Orphanage Food Support
Although almost all of the avenues for us to work in North Korea have been closed off, one remains open. Food aid is acceptable humanitarian aid under both the UN and US sanctions and no exemption is needed. For the past year and a half LNKM has been supporting the North Hamgyong province Children’s Home in Chongjin City with $1,000 per month with food. Our non-American partners who can still go into NK are purchasing food from inside North Korea. This has simplified the process and cut any costs associated with importing from China.
There are 120 kids at the home ranging in ages from newborns to 17 years old. They come from everywhere in the province and are from many different backgrounds. There are also 40 staff who also benefit from the food support. We are happy to say that this program has been running well and our partners report that the overall nutrition and health of the children have been greatly improved. We plan to continue with this food support through 2019.
Surfing North Korea Book
When the travel ban was announced last year, we decided as a family that since travel to North Korea was restricted, it would be a good time to take a sabbatical year off. My (Gabe) parents are in Boise Idaho, and we have been here to both take a much needed break as well as to spend time with them. In addition, I was able to write a book about my experiences working in North Korea. The title is ‘Surfing North Korea and Other Stories from Inside’ and it was published the end of last summer.
The book has had a good reception by our friends but at the same time the audience has remained limited. Although the title is about surfing, the book is really about engaging North Korea in innovative ways. The typical American has in no way been exposed to the idea of engaging North Korea and a book about it is a pretty foreign concept to most people. Our hope is that the relationship between the US and North Korea would improve and along with the idea of engagement would become more acceptable, which might then translate into better book sales. As the old saying goes, “You usually have to wait for that which is worth waiting for.”
The book is available on Amazon but the best way to find it is through the website www.surfingnorthkorea.com. If you are an Amazon shopper and would be willing to write a book review, I’d greatly appreciate it. There is also an author page on FaceBook which has become my central place for all things related to the book and NK. You can find that page at www.facebook.com/GabeSegoine. If you haven’t already done so, please ‘like’ the page as it will really help boost my profile.
We know a lot of our friends have been waiting for a Korean version and Joy is currently working on it. She has finished the first draft translation and we are shooting for a release in Korea this coming spring of 2019. We’ll keep you updated on the progress.
Our time in Idaho is coming to an end. It was restful but also a year filled with activities. I (Gabe) was busy with finishing and promoting my book. Joy has been busy translating it so we can launch in Korea. There were also opportunities to engage with clean water work in places like Eastern Africa through the training of local pastors who are in the states for education. It was really cool to see their eyes light up as we presented a water filter solution that has the capability to reduce water-borne sickness and disease in villages. They were excited to take the technology home and put it into action in villages.
Alongside with other NK focused NGOs, both Joy and Gabe were also able to meet UN and US officials in both Washington DC and New York. We communicated the difficulties we currently face doing the work in NK. Since the US administration policy seems to be softening, we are hopeful those meetings were part of the changing position.
As a family we were able to do a bit of traveling while promoting the book and work in NK. We also connected with the Idaho Korean Association (yes there is a Korean association here but only around 5000 Koreans in the entire state). Hope and Danielle won a singing contest with a Korean song and we joined a local Korean American to do Christmas caroling at the state veteran’s hospital as well as provided Christmas gifts for a refugee family from the Congo.
We are very proud of our oldest daughter Danielle. In addition to graduating high school, Danielle devoted much of her time to our local church youth group leading praise and worship. She also had several opportunities to play with the main band in the main worship services. She graduated high school early and now plans on attending a performing arts school at the University of the Nations in Kona Hawaii. The school runs for 6 months from April to September, 2019 and will take her and a performance team to Italy, Israel and Greece. It’s exciting but also difficult to see her begin to spread her wings and fly into her own destiny of life.
This past summer Charity had an opportunity to travel around Idaho with a local church youth group. She had a very successful trip and her team was able to visit several towns, serve local communities, and just plain old love the people who came across their path. She also continues to create content for her YouTube channel ‘Charity Wynn’ and is studying hard to graduate high school early.
Hope continues to study, sing, dance and create art but the big news for her this year was the Baby Shark song continuing to go viral through the US and Europe. The YouTube video now has over 2 billion views. It’s been crazy to hear her voice on national TV programs such as Ellen, Late Night and X-Factor. She was also featured on a local Idaho news story.
Although a significant portion of the population of the planet has heard her voice, she still remains relatively unknown. People also seem to think she got rich off the song, which is actually not the case. So far she has only been paid for singing the song in the studio and we are hopeful there will eventually be some residual income.
Our Plans for 2019
Many have asked when we will be back in Korea. In short, we do not have plans beyond this coming summer but we do know we will be in Korea for the spring. Joy will travel back to Seoul with Danielle the second week of January. Gabe, Charity and Hope will meet up with them the first week of March in Korea before making a book promotional trip to Singapore. From there, we will be in Korea until July 1.