Providing a Ton of Aid for North Korea Is Not Heavy Lifting

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Providing a Ton of Aid for North Korea Is Not Heavy Lifting

Several weeks have passed since Tim Peters returned from a humanitarian trip to China, and he sits in a spanking new Starbucks in Seoul. Urgency in his voice, he flips through photographs from his trip. "I can't give you this picture," he says, pausing at a photo of a girl being examined by a doctor in the middle of a forest. A North Korean refugee hiding in China, she appears a little tense. "Her face is too visible," Mr. Peters says. After flipping through several more photos, he finds one in which her face is obscured.

Mr. Peters is the founder of Ton-A-Month Club and Helping Hands Korea. Ton-a-Month Club, supported by Koreans and expatriates, raises money and sends food and clothing aid to North Korea. Recently it has expanded its services to helping North Korean refugees.

Most of the photos Mr. Peters shared were from the border region in northeastern China, which is usually the first stop on a grueling journey out of North Korea. During the famine in the mid-1990s, the number of North Korean farmers and workers crossing the border and hiding in the area soared. Since they are illegal residents in China, it is hard to gauge their exact numbers; estimates range from 10,000 to 30,000.

Now that the food situation in North Korea has improved somewhat, there are fewer refugees making this trek. But according to Mr. Peters, the bounty for information on them has gone up. "It's more risky for them to be there than before," he said.

On his most recent trip to the border area, he took with him five other people, including Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who was expelled from North Korea on Dec. 30, 2000. His team supplied medical care to both North Korean refugees and Chinese residents, and connected people with safe houses, food and a network of helpers Mr. Peters calls "Robin Hoods." In the four days he was there, the series of events Mr. Peters witnessed was so intense that, he said, it made the trip feel more like "three months."

Dr. Vollertsen examined a Chinese man who had been stabbed in his left eye and a North Korean whose belly had been slashed. Mr. Peters listened as two North Korean brothers were briefed on how to leave China. He recalls one of the brothers saying, "We know the border police are only one step behind us, but we'd rather die trying." "It was so incredibly sobering," Mr. Peters said.

Among the other creature comforts he took with him was a keyboard that his son had donated. "On my previous trip, I heard some of the children wanted something musical," Mr. Peters said.

Mr. Peters first came to Korea as a "free-lance" Christian missionary in the mid-1970s. Not associated with any denomination, he now makes a living as an editor and speech writer.

On his first visit to Korea, North Korea was far from Mr. Peters' mind. He focused on helping poverty-stricken South Koreans all over the world. He also married a Korean woman. "My calling from the mid-70s has been Korea," Mr. Peters said. "Some people ask, 'Is it because your wife is Korean?' I really don't think so."

Ton-a-Month Club began "with a little prayer meeting," Mr. Peters said. News about the famine in North Korea had hit the media. One day, Mr. Peters, his wife and son happened to be reading Proverbs 25:21: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; and if he's thirsty, give him something to drink." The verse prompted the three to start mobilizing food aid.

Since 1996, Ton-a-Month Club has supplied clothing and more than 50 tons of food to North Koreans in North Korea and China. The group has its own delivery system. Now that the organization's scope has widened, the name of the organization has evolved to Ton-a-Month Club and Helping Hands Korea.

After the trip to China, Mr. Peters organized a fundraising concert by Irish performers Andrea Rice and Fee Dobbin at the Seoul Chosun Hotel on April 29. The concert raised 2.5 million won ($1,900). The next fundraising event will be a salsa party on May 26. For more information, e-mail

by Joe Yong-hee

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