Providing relief for a hostile N. Korea

Clarksville resident heads $3 million-a-year medical aid effort for U.S. enemy

October 06, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The secret to helping a secretive nation -- one of the world's most isolated hot spots -- is to keep a low profile and stay out of politics.

So says Stephen Linton, a descendant of a long line of Korean missionaries and president of the Eugene Bell Foundation. The nonprofit agency funnels $3 million a year in medical relief to North Korea, a nation so hostile to outsiders that many charities refuse to do business there.

"We're not there to drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century," Linton said. "If you help ordinary people and give them what information they want and they need, people will figure out things for themselves."

The 53-year-old Clarksville resident was born in the United States, but he was raised and schooled in South Korea from the age of 3.

He has visited North Korea more than 60 times since his first trip in 1979 to observe an international table tennis tournament. He met three times with then-North Korean President Kim Il Sung and was an interpreter when the Rev. Billy Graham visited North Korea in 1992 and 1994.

Today, Linton works in a particularly difficult environment -- trying to help the people of a country whose government is threatening to develop nuclear weapons and is on President Bush's "axis of evil" list.

The Eugene Bell Foundation, named for Linton's great-grandfather, supplies medicine and equipment to North Korean hospitals and clinics that treat tuberculosis.

The lung ailment infects 8 million people a year and kills 2 million worldwide. It can be treated with drugs but remains a serious problem in North Korea, Africa and the former Soviet republics.

Linton knows something about the disease. As Presbyterian missionaries, his parents operated a TB clinic in South Korea for 30 years. Linton contracted TB twice, once at age 7 while attending a South Korean grade school and again just before his first trip to North Korea.

"It's a terrible illness, but the real tragedy is that it's entirely curable," he said.

Linton has been funneling aid to North Korea since the mid-1990s, when a series of floods, droughts and failed economic policies prompted the Pyongyang government to issue an unprecedented call for help.

Linton, who has a doctorate in Korean studies from Columbia University, quit his job as an associate professor there to help create the Eugene Bell Centennial Foundation, a precursor to his current organization.

Traveling to North Korea in 1997, he returned with a lasting impression of famine and its effects on a nation that is the size of Mississippi, but with 23 million inhabitants.

"I witnessed hundreds of internally displaced people who were wandering the city streets, highways and railroad tracks in a desperate search for food," Linton told a Senate committee in June. "The plight of these people was indescribable -- a tragedy that I will never be able to forget."

Those who know Linton describe him as dedicated to helping North Korea to the point of being headstrong. "My hat's off to Steve Linton," said James DeHarpporte, who is director of Catholic Relief Services' western regional office in San Diego and has traveled to North Korea with Linton.

DeHarpporte credits Linton with patience and resourcefulness in helping Catholic Relief Services verify that its food and medicine reached the intended hospitals and clinics. "He had the contacts and the level of trust with the people that enabled us to get in there and make sure the supplies were going where they were supposed to go," DeHarpporte said.

Relief agencies that send aid to North Korea typically raise money among private citizens in South Korea. But after four years as chairman, Linton split with his foundation's board over its unwillingness to ask for money from the South Korean government.

During the 1990s, North Korea received millions of dollars in aid from foreign governments, including the United States, China and Japan. In South Korea, government aid to the North has long been an issue in national politics, with hawks arguing that aid to the North helps prop up a repressive regime.

"It's neither a mystery nor is it really a surprise that these governments have tried to help North Korea over the years," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a book on North Korea.

Eventually, Linton resigned from his original group and started the Bell Foundation. Today, he said, a third of Bell's funding comes from the South Korean government; a third from South Korean individuals, churches and social organizations; and the rest from their counterparts in the United States.

"When people are in really bad shape, you take funding where you can get it," Linton said.

Members of the Centennial Foundation board have since reorganized as the Christian Friends of Korea, based in North Carolina. In tax forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the group says it raises about $2 million a year in private donations.

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