Engaging North Korea, Consistently and Persistently

October 19, 2017

By Esther Im

As NCNK highlighted previously, many ordinary Americans have long been engaging North Korea to foster better relations between the US and North Korea. The recent announcement of restrictions on travel to and from North Korea brings into sharp relief the precarious nature of our engagement with North Korea. In light of this new and challenging environment, it is doubly important to highlight the trust-building and value-added work of these Americans. Here is Randall Spadoni's story.

Randall Spadoni has been traveling to North Korea since 2007 to implement World Vision’s humanitarian programs there. World Vision began its operations in North Korea in 1994 at the start of the famine, providing food to preschool- and kindergarten-aged children. With a focus on the welfare of children, World Vision has expanded its assistance to include drilling wells to provide clean water to farmers, helping communities grow sufficient food, re-equipping medical facilities, and responding to disasters.

As the North Korea Program Director, Randall’s desire is to play a practical role in building peace, embodying American integrity and reliability to the people of North Korea. Given the history of miscommunication and mistrust between the U.S. and North Korea, he believes that enduring peace can only be reestablished through strong personal relationships that cultivate trust over time. Humanitarian projects that benefit North Korean children are one approach to building trust; with each project, World Vision builds confidence that the DPRK and international community can work together successfully towards a common good.

As one of the oldest international humanitarian organizations operating in North Korea, World Vision has steadily established systems for monitoring, documentation, and evaluation that are critical to successful programs. Moreover, the longevity and breadth of its work has enabled the organization to build institutional experience and capacities that have not only given it access to nearly the entire country and a wide variety of partners and sectors, but also to withstand the ups and downs in the international political situation and maintain consistent engagement.

In 2016 alone, World Vision provided a lifetime of clean water to 8,677 rural North Koreans, fed 45,000 North Korean children, and provided emergency assistance when Typhoon Lionrock affected over 100,000 people in the remote northeast. Over the last 20 years the organization has reached over 1,000,000 North Koreans in every province of the country.

Despite the longevity of World Vision’s work in North Korea, it has struggled to establish a permanent office in the country. As the Program Director, this is a continued challenge for Randall. Although World Vision teams visit the country regularly, the lack of a resident office handicaps him and his staff in building deep relationships and effective communication with partners on the ground. The prospects for a resident presence will only become more elusive with the U.S. travel ban. 

Randall recognizes that with each new nuclear and missile test by the North Koreans, Americans’ desire to extend compassion to ordinary North Koreans can seem to come into conflict with concerns about security. However, he continues to believe that responsible humanitarian engagement is a necessary expression of American values that can contribute to security and, eventually, to peace.

Written from an interview with Randall Spadoni on September 11, 2017.