Expect the Unexpected!

When it comes to working inside North Korea, our family is no stranger to plans going sideways. We started learning this early on while working inside. One particular incidence comes to mind as I think about the many obstacles we have had to overcome throughout our journey in North Korea.

"What if we can't make it out in time?" I asked.

"Then, I guess we have to turn around and go back.  We'll just have to wait until tomorrow," Stephen replied.

We had just finished our third visit inside.  The border to China was closing at 5 pm, and we didn't have much time left to make it to Immigration. But, what would normally be a railroad crossing in the middle of the road was now impassable.  All trains in North Korea are run by electricity, and in the middle of the railroad crossing was a train in a dead stop.  No electricity was running, and there was no knowing when it would turn back on.

North Korean Train

North Korean Train

Looking around us there was no solution but to turn back to our hotel in the city if the train did not start moving soon. Then, a car in front of us started down a small, dirt trail.  “Where in the world was it going?” we wondered. About 300 meters down the path was a small ford in the middle of a stream underneath the railroad bridge. There was just enough space for a car to go through, if it could make it down through the dirt, ox path and then through a rocky stream.

Our driver did not favor that option, but after waiting another half hour, we didn't have much of a choice. It was either risk damage to the car or give up and turn back for the day.  Hazardously, we slowly made our way down the dirt trail into the stream. The car halted on some rocks. We almost had to bail out and push, but with an extra press on the accelerator, we jolted up and over the stones onto dry ground. Fifteen minutes later, we came out on the other side of the road. The train had still not moved.

About an hour and a half later, we were crossing the border into China. Our driver turned on a victory song full-blast in the car. Never before had we had such a thrilling adventure!

Like this experience, working in North Korea is often likened to a roller coaster ride. And indeed, life, in general, often rolls with severe ups and downs. These twists and turns are to be expected, especially when working inside a country that follows rules and standards so different from our own. It is not the fact that we have unexpected challenges in our work that defines us. Rather, it is how we respond to these difficulties that will make or break our work.

Currently, the most challenging aspect of our work is not North Korea but the current U.S. and U.N. regulations and restrictions. As a U.S. registered non-profit humanitarian organization, we are having to jump through a myriad of hoops just to keep our foot in the door in order to provide life-saving treatment for children with developmental disabilities. These restrictions include a Geographic Travel Restriction to North Korea, financial restrictions from the U.S. Treasury Department, and both U.N. and U.S. sanctions against North Korea. Many times, these restrictions can be so difficult to navigate that many humanitarian organizations are being discouraged from continuing to provide aid to those in need in North Korea.

But like our little escapade under the stalled train and through the stream, there is always a way through. It may take more creativity, more determination, and more endurance than ever before, but like all obstacles, it is the way that we respond to these challenges that will make all the difference. Obstacles will always pop up unexpectantly. But in the end, if we continue to push through, one day we will be singing a victory song over this adventurous roller coaster ride!      

Joy Yoon