Paving the Way for Engagement

“To have a friend, you must be a friend.” This truth is applicable to almost any context. It proves true for kids playing on the playground. And it remains applicable for adults in the workplace. Friendship is only as deep as the effort we put into it.

In other words, something of ourselves must be shared and given in order to make a friend. This is true not just for friendships but also for all relationships. As Miraslov Volf explains in his book Exclusion & Embrace, it is about, “self-donation and reception of the other” (1996, pg. 30).

Why do so many relationships fail? More often than not, it is because the relationship is one-sided. One partner gives or sacrifices more than the other while the other partner in the relationship may over-dominate or demand more. Or, perhaps both partners in the relationship expect more than what is reasonable. The bottom line is that relationships must have a give and a take. And initially, it is usually the giving of oneself that catalyzes the birth of a new relationship in the first place.

How does this relate to the situation on the Korean Peninsula? Simply put, relationships are key, particularly in North Korea. Korean culture at its foundation is relationally-based, and building trusting relationships with North Koreans is essential in order to get anything done within the country.

This is especially true for American humanitarian workers in North Korea. Americans are the epitome of their enemy. North Koreans highly distrust foreigners, particularly U.S. citizens. As a result, we not only need to earn their trust but we also need to discredit any underlying assumptions of untrustworthiness.

With this knowledge, it is no wonder that U.S. and North Korea’s relationship has been at a standstill for decades. America, for the most part, has basically taken an all-or-nothing stance when it comes to North Korea. Implementing sanctions, geographic travel restrictions, and U.S. treasury restrictions all prove this. America demands North Korea to come all the way towards denuclearization before America will even acknowledge them.

But building relationships requires sacrifice. It demands a deeper level of self-giving in order to receive the gift of friendship in return.

My husband and I lived and worked in North Korea for over a decade. We have ample experience negotiating with North Koreans. What we have learned over the years is that in North Korea much is possible if we only have the time and endurance to work through the issues.

Discussing the Importance of Special Education in North Korea

There have been many times that we have needed to walk out on negotiations. But what has mattered the most is that we had the commitment to keep trying. It takes time for a relationship between two different world-views to unpack all misunderstandings, as well as acknowledge past hurts and take necessary steps in meeting expectations. The important thing is that we had the willingness to continue working together towards positive progress.

For the first four years in Pyongyang, our family lived on an isolated, heavily guarded compound on the west side of the city. We had no freedom to leave the compound without the escort of our minders. Our life primarily consisted of just work and home. It was a bleakly isolated existence.

Yet it was through this sacrifice of our personal freedoms and comforts that deep relationships were paved inside North Korea. Self-giving carved out these relationships, which eventually led North Koreans, themselves, to advocate on our behalf and allow us to move to the Foreign Diplomatic Compound. This move was critical in allowing us greater individual freedom and connections with the foreign community.

In the end, it was primarily through our trusted relationship with our minder that we became the first American family in seventy years to live on the Foreign Diplomatic Compound! We learned through this experience that meaningful engagement with North Korea requires sacrificial, long-term investment through trustworthy relationships.

Outside Our Apartment on the Foreign Diplomatic Compound in Pyongyang

Although this story does not pale in comparison to world-wide negotiations, I believe there is an underlining truth to it. Back in 2018 when President Trump met with General Secretary Kim Jung-Un, he took a courageous first step in initiating a relationship with North Korea. Unfortunately, at the Hanoi Summit, America demanded complete denuclearization upfront. Negotiations stopped at a standstill. And this standstill continues today. All give or all take just simply does not work, especially in the midst of much distrust between the two countries.

Rather, it takes sacrificial self-giving to build meaningful, long-lasting relationships. Through this relational approach it will be more possible to pave the way for a new future on the Korean Peninsula. This giving is painful, but we just might find that we will be received as a result, dare I even say embraced, by the other. I know. I have personally experienced and testify to a North Korean embrace.

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Stephen and Joy Yoon

Stephen and Joy Yoon

Joy Yoon and her husband spent more than ten years as humanitarian NGO workers in one of the world’s most mysterious and closed societies.