Opinion: Talking ‘kimchi’ with North Koreans

Delegation's visit a reminder not to reduce a culture to a caricature

Jun 19, 2017 by and

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WINNIPEG, Man. — I was grateful for the opportunity in early May to sit around the dinner table on a Manitoba farm and share a Mennonite feast with local friends, some Mennonite Central Committee colleagues and five guests from North Korea.

The delegation was here for a few days of meetings with MCC about our work in their country, some tour stops in southern Manitoba and some mutual learning about agriculture, development work and each other.

Canadians and North Koreans enjoy a meal during the Korean delegation’s visit to Manitoba in May. At left, Kang II Choe, adviser to the Korea Canada Corporation Agency and the Korean American Private Exchange Society, expresses the delegation’s thanks. Next to him are Ernie and Char Wiens, who hosted the meal at their home. At right are Darryl Loewen, MCC Manitoba executive director; Un Hyok Ra, KCCA director; and Chol Hyok Kim, KAPES senior director. — Doug Hostetler/MCC

Canadians and North Koreans enjoy a meal during the Korean delegation’s visit to Manitoba in May. At left, Kang II Choe, adviser to the Korea Canada Corporation Agency and the Korean American Private Exchange Society, expresses the delegation’s thanks. Next to him are Ernie and Char Wiens, who hosted the meal at their home. At right are Darryl Loewen, MCC Manitoba executive director; Un Hyok Ra, KCCA director; and Chol Hyok Kim, KAPES senior director. — Doug Hostetler/MCC

But for me, it was something that happened at that meal that captures the real purpose of the visit and the heart of MCC’s work. We talked about kimchi.

As we chatted warmly, laughed and talked about our families, our guests shared their favourite recipes and family secrets for making kimchi, a traditional Korean dish.

In the old days, they said, the cabbage, radish and peppers went into a clay pot and were buried in the yard until they were ready.

You might have had a similar conversation. Maybe, like me, you’ve listened to Manitoba Mennonites reminisce about the old days of preserving veggies and fruit and butchering a winter’s supply of sausage.

During my orientation to MCC some time ago, I was shown a video of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking about “the danger of a single story.”

The premise is that we can’t reduce another person — or another culture — to a single, one-dimensional caricature. While many are most familiar with MCC’s humanitarian work, the message of that video gets at another aspect of our work that’s really central to who we are.

For decades, we’ve been working to build peace in the name of Christ and develop relationships across ethnic, religious and cultural lines. We’re convinced a just peace needs just laws and governments that serve the interests of their citizens. But peace also has to happen at an individual level, with small steps and face-to-face encounters leading toward reconciliation.

MCC has been working in North Korea for 22 years, and we know the political and humanitarian situation well.

We also know kimchi recipes won’t make the saber-rattling go away or change some disturbing news about the country. But for me, that family dinner was part of the ongoing work of peacebuilding and helped illustrate that there’s always more to the story, and more to the people, than what we might think.

Darryl Loewen is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee in Manitoba.


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