George Rhee, head of Love North Korean Children, said his three bakeries in the North feed some 9,000 children daily and his ability to monitor operations ensures that bread gets to those targeted to receive it.
“I know that 100 percent of our bread gets to the children because I watch it go in their mouths,” said Rhee, a Briton of Korean descent, during a recent interview in Seoul. “These children need something to eat for lunch.”
The issue of transparency has come to the fore as the United States and E.U. deliberate over whether to approve the North’s recent appeals for food. Washington has said its decision partly hinges on the access it gets.
The United Nations estimates that some 6 million North Koreans are in dire need of food.
Rhee frequently visits the bakeries, located in the special economic zone of Rajin-Sonbong, Hyangsan in North Pyongan Province and Pyongyang, to make sure the food is delivered to the target schools and that flour and other supplies are shipped in from China.
The rest of his time is spent raising funds, a job that promises to become even busier _ he plans to open two more bakeries in September.
Rhee immigrated from the South over twenty years ago to further his studies. However, he had some deeply personal business still left on the peninsula.
One of the dying wishes of his father, who escaped from the North during the 1950-53 Korean War, was to one day visit his homeland. Though the wish went unfulfilled, Rhee himself was able to do so in 2001, visiting Rason as a tourist and bringing his father along in spirit.
What he saw left him in shock.
“I saw children going hungry and old ladies selling goods in the market in the bitter cold,” he said. “After that I decided I needed to help people there.”
In September, his personal journey will reach a milestone as one of the new bakeries is located in Haeju, South Hwanghae Province, his father’s hometown.
North Korean women staff his bakeries but each location has one or two Korean-Chinese managers who are Rhee’s eyes and ears when he is not there.
The cooking itself is as utilitarian as it gets; the buns are steamed, Chinese-style, to save electricity. They are prepared without the traditional bean filling, as Rhee realized funds were better spent on more flour.
The bread is delivered by his staff to a list of schools _ from nursery to middle schools _ jointly selected by Rhee and local authorities. The process maximizes access to children in the tightly-controlled country, far more than nearly all South Korean and international aid groups, he said.
Some say rice delivered by U.N. officials often gets diverted to the army and that South Korean NGOs, which need Seoul’s approval to do their work, lack the mobility to ensure the food goes where it’s supposed to.
But the North has been receptive to Rhee’s initiative, partly, he thinks, because of his citizenship in the U.K. which maintains relations with Pyongyang. Rhee believes it is also because the government wants to see the group succeed and food go to the children.
“Aid activities for children have become more transparent,” he said. “That’s something I am proud of.”
North Korea has been receptive to his recent request, that the Pyongyang bakery supplies bread to the outskirts, not the city proper where better-off families of officials live.
Rhee, who recently opened a branch office in Seoul, appealed to South Koreans for donations. Fund-raising efforts here have been difficult in the wake of recent political altercations between the Koreas. The major share of funding still comes from the Korean-British community.
“I very much hope that as people in the South get to know our organization better and the access we have in North Korea that we’ll get more response to our fund-raising efforts.”
He said given the proper funding, he would expand to as many areas as possible. His goal is to build a bakery in each of the 26 geographic districts in North Korea.
Despite his efforts, Rhee said his mission remains an intimidating uphill battle given the difficult food situation.
Still, on trips to the schools, he never fails to deliver fresh bread with a smile and a positive message.
“I ask them if they know where the United Kingdom is. Then I tell them, this bread is from the U.K. and Korean people there,” he said.