Breaking bread with North Koreans: An interview with Linda Lewis

A few weeks ago I sat down with Linda Lewis, AFSC’s country representative for China and North Korea, during her visit to the Philadelphia office.  She spent much of her time on the East Coast speaking with AFSC donors and Quakers in the area about her work with farmers in North Korea. Linda’s passion for this work comes through in her presentations and her stories.  She may not discuss religion or spirituality with AFSC’s Korean partners in the region, but it was clear to me that the work was firmly rooted in the belief in a common humanity and dignity. -Madeline

This story is part of the "Let Your Life Speak" 2017 feature. Read the other stories from the project here.

Madeline Schaefer (MS): What is the story of how you got involved in social justice work?

Linda Lewis (LL):  I first went to the Korean peninsula in 1970 as a Peace Corp volunteer. Right out of college, I went to South Korea and I worked in a community development program where I lived on a very small farm and first transplanted rice. 

It was a really important experience in my life; I went to graduate school in anthropology in Korean studies, and I had a twenty year career in teaching about Korea and international education.

So a few years ago when the job I had ended and my husband had retired, we thought, maybe it’s time for us to go back overseas again.  We’ve lived 12 or 13 years in different places in Asia, but we said, “Alright, let’s look around.”

I saw the job with AFSC and I said “How marvelous for someone like me who’s an anthropologist to have a chance to go to farms on the other side of the DMZ and to learn about North Korea and to work with North Koreans.”

It seemed like a wonderful circle. And I have to say that I regard it as a blessing toLinda Lewis presenting at a recent donor event in Philadelphia be able to do this work at this time in my life.

MS: What was it about AFSC as an organization that particularly attracted you?

LL: The more I’ve come to learn about AFSC values, the more I’ve come to appreciate it and also see how comfortable I am with it myself as an anthropologist.

At AFSC we don’t judge.  We don’t say to farmers, “You must do this and this and this.”  We listen. We say, “How can we support you.”  We encourage them; we try to empower them.  It means giving up authority, which is hard for a lot of people to do.  It means really treating them as partners. 

A lot of organizations throw these words around, “we treat people as partners.”  But what does it really look like if you treat people as partners? It means that you follow what they say they want to do, which is hard to do a lot of the time. 

What does it mean when they say you respect people?  Well it means if they say don’t take pictures you don’t take pictures.  It means that when they say they we feel this way then you assume that it’s true and respect it.  So I think the way AFSC values underlie the work, I feel really comfortable with.

MS: What was your exposure to Quakers or Quakerism before you joined AFSC?

LL: Well, I have to say, not very much. I think I was aware of the fact of the nonviolent aspect of it; mostly that’s what I knew about Quakers. But I wasn’t really aware so much of the strong social justice and economic justice parts of it, which to me I felt a stronger affinity with.

MS: What is the state of religion in North Korea?

LL: Actually Pyongyang used to be called the Jerusalem of the East. Christian missionaries were quite successful on the Korean peninsula in the early 20th century.  A high percentage of South Koreans consider themselves to be Christian now, but in fact Christianity was even stronger in North Korea. So Linda Lewis laughing with AFSC's new Board Clerk, Phil Lord, and AFSC's Deputy General Secretary, Hector Cortez there was a strong missionary presence and a strong church.

But of course under the current government—it’s a communist country—I wouldn’t say that Christianity is outlawed (there are official churches) but it’s illegal to have a bible, it’s illegal to be a practicing Christian. And I would say that in our office in China—we have three Chinese staff—and for them as well, understanding what it means to be a Quaker organization is a real challenge.

MS: What do they find challenging?

LL: They really don’t understand how religious faith and beliefs play a role in people’s lives. They don’t understand it as a motivation.

MS: What is the motivation of people’s work in North Korea and China?

LL: North Korea has a history not just of Christianity but also obviously of Buddhism.  Confucianism as an ethical system underscores human relationships, which we usually think of as something that religion informs, but Confucianism is not a religion, it’s an ethical system.  

MS: What are points of commonality or connections that you see between Quaker faith, as you understand it, and North Korean ethics?

LL: In some ways, Quaker faith in the eyes of Koreans is irrelevant to our work. It’s not important why we’re motivated to do it.  As long as we’re not going to proselytize and as long as we’re going to build trusting caring relationships with them, they don’t ask where that comes from.

MS: Right, it’s really through the relationships that you’ve built.

LL: To me the most important thing about Quaker values is finding common humanity with people. That’s how to work effectively in North Korea:  is to find what you have in common and you do that by sharing the experience of working together. I think most other, particularly secular organizations, aren’t able to do that.

Watch this short video of Linda Lewis on the intersection of Quaker values and her work in North Korea:

MS: What motivates you to do this work? What do you find so important about the work you’re doing in North Korea?

LL: One part of it is for my whole life I’ve been involved in the Korean peninsula and it seems that nothing has changed. And so the chance to give it one more try at the end of my career seems important.

Another thing that motivates me now that I’m in the work is changing the images that Americans have about North Korea. We’ve gone so far in terms of demonizing North Koreans and not really seeing them as human anymore.   I really care a great deal about using the learnings from our work, the stories that we have, to put a human face on North Koreans for an American audience. I think that’s one important thing that I can do and that I really care about doing.

MS: What is your vision for a future relationship between the United States and North Korea?

LL: I certainly think there’s no hope if the U.S. is not willing to engage with North Korea. So that’s one thing we’re working for—positive engagement.  You can’t have peace if you won’t talk to people, if you don’t take that first step of trying to find a common ground. So I would say if in the next few years we could see positive engagement, perhaps leading to recognition, I could see that as being a positive thing.

MS: How do you find refreshment in this work?  How do you maintain that ability to listen?

LL: My husband would say that I’m really obsessive about North Korea and that I need to find ways to refresh myself! But the truth is that I find the activities when we’re actually engaged with North Koreans refreshing; it makes me remember what the work is really about and why I’m doing it.

More on AFSC in North Korea

Watch this short audio slideshow to learn more about AFSC's work in North Korea.

Get a tour of North Korea's capital, Pyonyang, through this short audio slideshow.