Hospitality in the midst of hostility

Hospitality in the midst of hostility

A meal of corn noodles we enjoyed with hosts in Korea (Photo by Charissa Zehr)

By Charissa Zehr

I recently had the rare opportunity to visit Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) with several other Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) staff. I was eager to take part in the visit and see the country firsthand. But I also wondered how we would be received as U.S. citizens, given the tense history between our countries.

Most news reports about DPRK remind us of the hostility that has frozen the relationship between our two countries. Talk to almost any North Korean and they will probably use the phrase “hostile policy” when discussing the United States. These tensions have been present for many years and were exacerbated by the Obama administration’s increased militarization of the region.

Although the enmity between U.S. and North Korean political leaders is palpable, we were greeted with warmth and enthusiasm. At each place we visited we were shown hospitality: from slippers waiting at the door to keep our feet warm, to snacks of fruit and fresh roasted chestnuts.

Local government officials who oversee the orphanages that receive material assistance from MCC were eager to engage with us. They invited us to lunch, offering a spread of delicious food, including some traditional fare to celebrate the Korean holiday that fell in the middle of our trip.

In many faith traditions, breaking bread together is a tangible way of building community. Across many cultures, sharing a meal demonstrates hospitality and welcome. Gathering around the table with our Korean hosts made space for rich discussions, not only about MCC’s partnership in the country and political differences, but about our families, food traditions and the core of Anabaptist values that lead us to seek relationships with those our government labels “enemies.”

Each day of our visit I was struck anew by the open hand extended to us by North Koreans and MCC’s endeavor to build relationships with them. In this challenging work we are guided by a vision of reconciliation and hope for eventual peace between our countries.

Here in Washington we speak to the U.S. government about creative ways to work towards dialogue or open a door for people-to-people exchanges that could begin to thaw this relationship. Typical channels for diplomacy do not exist between the U.S. and North Korea.

Each year, further sanctions from the U.S and United Nations are meant to push the regime toward voluntary nuclear disarmament. Mostly they impact average North Koreans’ access to household goods or food while the ruling class remains relatively unaffected. Isolating North Korea in the global community has not produced the desired effect; it is time to try diplomatic solutions to end the years-long impasse.

After sharing meals in DPRK, I was reflecting on how history might read differently if political leaders could break bread together with no strings attached, experiencing how hospitality can break down the barriers built by hostility.