Caring for North Korea

A self-employed agricultural engineer from Hesston routinely travels Kansas as part of his job.

On those trips, Lee Wheeler noticed old abandoned farm equipment along the hedge rows and the back 40.

He had a vision of restoring them and sending them to North Korea-a country he’s visited six times since 1999 through his work with the Mennonite Central Committee.

“When I was over in North Korea, I’d say, ‘Man, what they wouldn’t give for some of that old used equipment,'” Wheeler said.

“I had been (visiting) North Korea for two to three years, and I saw they were still doing everything by hand.”

By the end of September, four 1960 John Deere grain drills were restored and sent to four cooperative farms in North Korea.

Helping Wheeler in the project was Dwight M. Flaming, a dairy farmer from Goessel.

In September, Flaming and Wheeler traveled to North Korea and spent 10 days teaching the people how to use and maintain the restored equipment and other machinery previously sent to that country.

After Wheeler returned from a visit to North Korea in May, he approached the MCC with the concept of restoring four old grain drills to send to that country in time for fall planting.

He was given the green light to start the project and was awarded funding as part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Agricultural Assistance Program.

“That program is a joint project with the American Friend’s Service Committee-also known as the Quakers-and the MCC,” Wheeler said.

The purpose of the program is to provide agricultural assistance to improve crop production and help find a sustainable way to relieve famine in that country.

But the focus goes beyond just offering a handout, Flaming said.

“Basically, it’s using the motto ‘teach them to fish rather than giving them the fish.’

“This particular ag-assistance part of the program is focusing on providing assistance so they can raise their own food and raise more food within the constraints of the political system.”

Before he even had a chance to begin refurbishing the grain drills, Wheeler was told by the MCC that the funds were available to purchase a 40-foot overseas container to ship the equipment.

“Then, the question was, who was I going to find to help me restore them? And several guys suggested I find one of the Mennonite churches that still had some closer hands-on ties to farming.”

Wheeler contacted Alexanderwohl Church in rural Goessel and was put in touch with Flaming, who was the president of the men’s association there.

After agreeing to work on the project, Flaming enlisted the help of about 15 members at the church to restore one of the grain drills. Their group worked in Lloyd Voths’ machine shed-one of three sites where the restoration work was being done.

Another group worked on a grain drill at the home of Jerry Toews in Goessel, and the last two drills were at Gene Swartzengruber’s shop in Hesston.

It took the Alexanderwohl group 10 days to complete their project, which included tearing the grain drill apart, cleaning, making repairs, repainting and re-assembling it.

In preparation to ship the farm equipment to North Korea, the designated sea container was sent to the MCC office in North Newton in July.

The costs and parts needed to complete the project were covered by individual donations, or items were purchased from companies offering them at reduced prices.

The container was filled with the four grain drills, two tons of winter-wheat seed, three tons of green-manure seed, drag harrows and seven tons of edible corn. When filled, it was scheduled to be shipped on Aug. 2.

On Sept. 14, Wheeler and Flaming flew to Chicago and eventually landed in Beijing, China. From there, they received their visas and plane tickets to fly to North Korea.

“The capitol you hear on the news lately-Pyong Yang-is where we stayed,” Wheeler said.

“Our host agency, the Korean Committee for Solidarity of World’s People, is a communist party-front committee.

“They took care of the lodging and put us up in a government guest house about 1/2 hour outside the city-with a 24-hour armed guard at the gate.”

All expenses, such as lodging, food and vehicle rentals, were paid using project funds administered by the AFSC.

Some of the solidarity committee members served as interpreters for the two men.

And what was the food like during their stay?

“I came home and made the comment that I’d probably never eaten so much food I didn’t like in all my life,” Flaming said.

But he did enjoy the Korean barbecue.

“It’s a specialty where they grill at the table while you’re eating. You have chicken, beef, duck and seafood. It’s very good.”

Wheeler said the worst food he’s eaten in his travels to North Korea was raw sea-urchin eggs.

“The sea urchin was still wiggling. They cut it in half on a rock on the beach and gave you a spoon to scoop out the eggs inside.”

During their visit, the two men visited the collective farms, that typically ranged as high as 5,000 acres with 5,000 people assigned one to an acre.

“Plus, all the families on top of that would be supported off the farm,” Flaming said. “If there was a 3,000-acre farm, there would be 3,000 people working on it.”

The major crops were rice and corn, but they also raised soy beans, wheat and fruit crops, too.

In addition to spending one day at each of the four farms, they conducted a seminar for the mechanics and farm managers.

Although the grain drills didn’t arrive in time for the day-long training session, Flaming was able to provide information about re-assembling, operating and maintaining them.

“The second half of the day, we went over some of the maintenance issues we observed that needed to be addressed,” Flaming said.

But aside from the obvious opportunity to share knowledge, the two men said there was more accomplished during their seminar.

“It provided a first-time opportunity for the four farms to interact together-to share ideas,” Flaming said. “They have the answers, they just needed to be able to bring out the answers.

“There were some good mechanics from some of the farms and some poor mechanics. But they could train each other with us facilitating the discussion.”

Flaming said he also felt the trip gave him the opportunity to help the MCC and AFSC look at some of the long-term goals of the program “and maybe raise some questions about the viability and sustainability of the development approach that was being implemented.”

In light of the current political situation between North Korea and the United States, Wheeler said he was surprised when the project was recently approved for another trip this month.

“Hopefully, what it shows is that they’re getting used to us,” Wheeler said. “And just because we’re Americans, they aren’t completely shutting the door-that there is a little bit of human relationship built up.”

And both men said the experiences gained from such projects as the DPRK Agricultural Assistance Program were part of a two-way street on a more personal level.

When they socialized with some of the North Korean people, they discovered the older government officials loved to share stories of children and grandchildren.

“They like to hear about things that all people cherish,” Wheeler said.

And those people in Goessel, who worked on the grain drill before it was shipped overseas, have made a connection, too.

“They have put some sweat equity into (restoring the machinery) and helping build relationships,” Flaming said. “It goes both ways that those relationships are improved.”

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