“A small group of Rotarians and Rotoractors (young Rotarians) decided to establish a network that might facilitate the Rotary goals that we were trying achieve,” Wilkinson said. “The Rotary goal is to promote international understanding, good will and world peace. A lot of people think we’re foolish. A lot of people think,’ what are you doing there? You haven’t got a hope in heck to get anywhere with that kind of a dictatorship.’ But the point is that if we’re not there who is going to be there. If we’re really going to promote international understanding, and really believe that that is what we’re about, as Rotarians, then we have to explore those possibilities, always in that effort to bring about understanding.”
They established the Korean Friendship Network, a volunteer umbrella group of nine Rotarians from Shanghai, Hong Kong, the U.S., Italy and from Canada, networking with Rotary Clubs and Rotarians interested in humanitarian and educational projects in North Korea.
“It is needed to determine and develop relationships, not only with the people of North Korea but also with the few NGO’s (Non Governmental Organizations) to give them support as well as government officials and agencies which will help ensure that projects and material, especially such as food and medicine and equipment, get through the maze of bureaucracy, and, in fact, reach our intended recipients and not end up feeding the military,” Wilkinson said.
“We help to identify and determine need, develop partnerships and negotiate access into the country,” he said “We determined a need. We located and negotiated and the need was for starving children, children die because of starvation. Both the flood and the drought that struck North Korea two years apart and over 75 per cent of the food production was lost in the floods.”
The group located and negotiated with an organization in the U.S. called, Feed My Starving Children.
“It’s a U.S. trades-based NGO who had the right consistency of food packages,” Wilkinson said. “That is very critical. The food pack is particularly designed for children. In order to help them, it has to be a very specialized type of food. It will not only help them to come back from starvation but also is acceptable to the country and the diet of the children.
While Feed My Starving Children had the ability to prepare the food packages, it lacked ability to ship a container into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“We found the shipping company. It was Italian. There are very few shipping companies that will go into North Korea.”
Wilkinson said the money to ship the container and process the documentation needed to be found. It cost $8,000 and was raised by the Summerside Rotary Club.
He said the documentation was the most important and difficult part because of U.S. Customs regulations.
He said adding to the difficulties was the strained relationship between the U.S. and North Korea over nuclear testing.
“In that climate, we had to keep our focus.”
With all the obstacles in front of them, the group did manage to get the food packages into North Korea.
Rotaractors Gary Permenter and Michael Zhang travelled to North Korea at their own expense confirming that the food had in fact reached the children for whom it was intended. The project has provided 273,000 meals to disabled and orphaned children.
During their visit, they discovered skin rashes with many of the children, particularly at one of the orphanages.