‘North Koreans are like a mirror; if you smile at them, they smile back’
March 7th, 2014
Randal Eastman, a Canadian Rotarian living in Shanghai, is no stranger to working with the North Korean government.
Eastman’s work with the DPRK began in 2001, when he received a phone call from a North Korean official interested in acquiring a solar oven for a Pyongyang orphanage. A number of Rotary Clubs had for some time been involved in projects to send solar ovens to places with little electricity, and after two years of negotiations, the Shanghai Club was able to put together the funds to send a small team of Rotarians to install the first oven in Pyongyang.
“Everything was very formal at first,” Eastman told NK News. “During the initial meeting at the orphanage, everyone was friendly but a bit distant. The younger children especially seemed afraid of us. After a couple of days, though, everyone was smiling and laughing.”
Finding the orphanage largely bare of essential supplies, the group also brought medicines, toys, clothing, and purchased in the country refrigerators and televisions. After installing the oven, the Rotarians showed the orphanage residents how to use it to cook eggs, rice, and bread, which they then ate together.
A year after his initial visit, in April 2004, the news broke of a chemical explosion in the North Korean town of Ryongchon. Killing more than 150 people, injuring around 1,300, and damaging around 8,000 buildings, the explosion left a great many people permanently disabled.
After three months of hasty fundraising, Eastman visited Pyongyang to deliver 120 wheelchairs to people injured in the blast. (The DPRK-made film of the official welcoming ceremony is available to watch online.) As part of his trip, Eastman visited the Manyongdae Pen Factory, which had been set up after the Korean War to provide work for disabled soldiers, and now provides a livelihood for people injured in work-related accidents. He was also shown the Dongrim County Home for the Disabled, where he found the elderly residents making do with a handful of heavy chain-driven tricycle wheelchairs, and promised a further 36 wheelchairs for their use.
Eastman is full of stories, one of the most poignant of which concerns two North Korean boys, aged 12 and 14, whom he arranged to receive heart surgery in Shanghai in 2005.
“They were here for six weeks, as we had to fatten them up before their operations,” he said. “When they were well enough to return home, we had a farewell dinner with the hospital staff and Rotarians. The older boy brought a guitar and played songs with some young South Korean members of our Interact club. We witnessed a really powerful emotive moment when North and South Koreans were singing together.”
Having worked with the DPRK for 13 years, Eastman has built up familiarity with the Korean Committee for the Promotion of International Trade and he credits this for the extent of his work.
“North Koreans are like a mirror; if you smile at them, they smile back,” he said. “If you have an angry face at them, they have an angry face back.
“There aren’t many agencies that have their respect on the ground. Our Korean counterparts have the whole weight of the system to push against in order to get something done. It’s all about building up good relations. In the long-term it’s only meaningful as long as I maintain an open communication channel.”
Eastman emphasises that Rotary is not a charity, but a worldwide network of clubs composed of businesspeople. Three years ago, Eastman worked alongside the Shanghai branch of the Rotaract Club (a branch of the Rotarians for 18-30 year-olds) with clubs in France and Hungary to refurbish an operating theater in a North Korean children’s hospital. He also assisted the disaster-relief charity, Shelterbox, in sending tents and construction materials to North Korea in January 2013 and January 2014 after two years’ devastating floods and typhoons.
“People really came together to deal with the immediate disaster, the cleanup, and to take care of those who lost their homes. It is a pity more people could not be exposed to this side of DPRK life,” he said.
Having joined forces with Koryo Tours and (the North) Korea Education Fund, Eastman is currently raising funds for an orphanage in Munchon, Kangwon Province. The plan is to install solar water-heaters so that the children and staff can bathe in hot water, and to buy soap made by Korean disabled workers.
While some criticize NGOs sending aid to North Korea, arguing that it allows the regime to survive, Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow on North East Asia at the conservative U.S. think tank the Heritage Foundation, told NK News he commended the work done by organizations like the Shanghai Rotarians.
“There is donor fatigue constraining donations to North Korea, when the DPRK government has not implemented changes to its economic system which would reduce the level of assistance it would require in the future.” Klinger said. “Charitable NGOs do admirable work providing assistance to the people of North Korea suffering horrendous conditions due to the policies of their own government.”
Eastman’s most recent project, which began in summer 2013, focuses on relieving hunger and involves working with Canadian Rotarians and the Food Plant Solutions Rotarian Action Group. The group works in 80 countries – including the DPRK – to identify food plants native to the target country that have high nutritional value, and using agricultural techniques to improve their production.
“People are starving, and when we talk to our counterparts, we realize how dire the situation is,” Eastman said. “The best way to relieve malnutrition is to work locally.”
In the future Eastman said, “the two areas I want to focus on at the moment are energy poverty and malnutrition. But my work in North Korea is really a hobby; I’m primarily a businessman. I’m continually invited to visit Pyongyang, but I just don’t have enough time.”
More can be learned about Eastman’s projects by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.