Not many people travel above the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula. There lies North Korea, the communist country of Kim Jong Il, a land that few Americans will ever see. But for the last few years, men from the PCA’s Western North Carolina Presbytery have beaten a well-worn path to friendship.
They are working on a well-drilling project in the countryside of North Korea, headed by PCA elder Jim Linton, who was raised in Korea. Through this project, called Wellspring, the presbytery has partnered with North Koreans and a South Korean presbytery to dig for clean water in rural areas.
It’s a mercy ministry like few others.
“It’s not ‘parachurch,'” says Craig Bulkeley, pastor of Friendship Presbyterian in North Carolina and a member of the Wellspring committee. “It’s going back to the church.”
And it isn’t based in a single church. Nor is it an independent nonprofit. It works as an arm of presbyteries, primarily the Western N.C. Presbytery in the U.S. and the Western Soonchun Presbytery in South Korea. The Mississippi Valley Presbytery has assisted with Wellspring, and now two other presbyteries are considering deepening their ties to the ministry’s work.
“We’re not a wealthy presbytery,” says Bulkeley about Western N.C. “We’re the least of the least.”
On a recent cold morning five pastors of churches in the presbytery met with Linton to talk about the Wellspring project over breakfast. He looked to them for counsel, ideas, and accountability.
The committee of elders overseeing Linton’s work wants to see at least 12 presbyteries in the U.S. partner with 12 presbyteries in South Korea to work with well-drilling in the 12 provinces in North Korea.
“Koreans have a perception that the people of western North Carolina love them,” Linton says smiling, referring to Wellspring, Christian Friends of Korea, Samaritan’s Purse, and Billy Graham—all of which have worked in Korea and are based in western North Carolina.
A History of Kimchi
Linton knows Korea, the united Korea, perhaps as well as anyone. In 1895 his great-grandfather, Eugene Bell, arrived in Seoul to begin mission work, and a long line of Lintons and Bells has worked in the Koreas ever since. Jim’s own parents, Hugh and Betty Linton, embarked for South Korea in 1953, and Jim grew up there doing maintenance work at their mission station while his father planted churches throughout South Korea.
Linton returned to the U.S. for college in 1971, working as a contractor in Black Mountain, N.C. In some ways, he had left Korea behind.
“I had eaten my fill of kimchi,” he admits. But his heart was never far from the Koreas. In 1995, he helped the Billy Graham Association field a mobile dental unit in North Korea. He later worked closely with Habitat for Humanity to prepare for President Jimmy Carter’s trip to building sites in South Korea.
Linton’s passion for missions in North Korea started to blossom. He began to see the myriad ways the church could help North Korea even with a hovering political chill. As an elder at Friendship Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Black Mountain, N.C., he wanted to see that work done under the auspices—and authority—of a presbytery. And the Western North Carolina stepped up to the plate. In 2004, they appointed Linton as special projects coordinator for North Korea.
North Koreans, Linton knew, saw clean drinking water as one of their highest health priorities, especially after massive floods in recent years had contaminated many water sources. Water-borne diseases became a daily threat.
Already UNICEF has two rigs in North Korea and can drill wells quickly, but their work is focused in urban centers. Wellspring works in rural areas often untouched by outside aid. Drilling for potable water is part of building infrastructure, Linton says, which is foundational to development.
Linton first introduced the idea of well drilling to elders from the Western Soonchun Presbytery in South Korea. Soon, Linton, accompanied by teaching elders Bob Drake and Craig Bulkeley, visited the North Korean Ambassador to the United Nations in New York. They received provisional approval for a well-drilling project within 48 hours.
“Just like that the government of North Korea had just invited us to begin a water well-drilling project!” Linton exclaims.
Now, North Koreans really want to have a hand in the project, says Linton. His words are sprinkled with Korean expressions, and he rattles off a common one: “We’ll do our own road,” he translates, saying that they do things their own way. Just as anyone would, he reminds a listener.
“Our friends in North Korea respond more positively when you say ‘Please tell us how we can assist with this project’ than if you say, ‘We think this is the way it should be done.’”
North Koreans do the work of drilling, piping, transporting equipment and maintaining the wells. Wellspring arranges compensation for the crews that drill on a by-the-meter basis. They in turn cover their own costs, mostly fuel and labor. Wellspring promotes North Korean ownership of the project.
“We’re not trying to control it,” Linton says. “But the North Koreans have encouraged us to participate in every phase of planning.”
Wellspring received the first drilling report on the wells from their North Korean partners at the end of 2007. “This is a watershed event,” Linton says excitedly.
Eventually he hopes the Wellspring project will place at least one rig in each province. “We actually need at least 200 rigs,” he says, “so there’s plenty of opportunity for other presbyteries to get involved.”
We Know Your Heart”
It isn’t just about wells. Teams go from the U.S. to North Korea to share technology and install pumps, but they go primarily to build relationships. Linton has won trust there. He shows his broad hands covered in calluses and scars.
“These are my credentials,” he says. They prove that he is there to do hard work. He speaks Korean fluently, which helps to train drillers, talk with government officials, and translate the words of his American friends to his Korean friends.
“It’s important to note how North Koreans perceive friendship: even a dysfunctional long-term friend is better than a new acquaintance, they believe,” says Linton. “Sincerity is everything to the North Koreans. They say, ‘We know your heart.'”
This well-drilling “platform” for spreading the gospel may be under construction for some time, Linton admits, but it’s well worth it even if the short-term result is only a lot of drinking water, and a demonstration of Christ’s love.
“Even a cup of cold water in Christ’s name will be rewarded,” he says, “and this is all the North Koreans have asked of us.”
According to Linton, relationships are at the heart of his team’s trips to Korea. They go to “lay out their faces,” as Linton says, using a Korean expression. More than simply showing the love of Christ, they go because face-to-face relationships are vital in Korean culture.
Though religion and evangelism cannot be the face of Wellspring’s work, North Koreans are well aware of who these men are and what they believe.
Moving the Gospel Forward
The first drilling rig had been completed in Black Mountain, N.C., in the summer of 2005, and Wellspring sent the rig to South Korea. By January of 2006, Linton, with help from members of the Western Carolina and Western Soonchun Presbyteries, shipped it into North Korea. In May of that year a technician and two of his right-hand men came from North Korea to be trained on operating the drilling rig.
Even as the project took wing, the North Koreans wanted to get to know their new acquaintances better. On a warm Sunday in May 2006, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations Song Ryol Han, slipped quietly into the back rows of several PCA churches throughout Asheville, N.C., to observe worship services. The ambassador and his entourage did not stay long, but they must have been satisfied with what they saw. Work on the project went forward.
With the ambassador satisfied and the rig ready for action, four members of the Western Carolina Presbytery followed Linton to North Korea in July of 2006 to dedicate the rig in Korean style and get it drilling for water.
But before drilling, everyone involved in the project had to make sure they were on the same page. To ensure good communication, the Koreans working on drilling wells were encouraged to give names to the various pieces of machinery. They worked out a glossary for all the parts. Linton reminded them that it is an honorable task to name the parts, remembering that God gave Adam the honor of naming animals at creation.
So in tiny ways, the gospel has gone forward.
Digging Deeper and Wider
The unlikely marriage of denominations across the Pacific is working, despite cultural differences, bureaucracy, distance, and other practical difficulties.
Just doing development work above the 38th parallel is no cakewalk. North Korea almost exclusively permits government organizations to do humanitarian and development work in the country. Since the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with North Korea, there has been no formal avenue for that sort of work. So the Korea-America Private Exchange Society (KAPES) was born. American ministries and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) can transfer goods and services under the umbrella of KAPES, a North Korean NGO. That’s Wellspring’s channel to do work in the communist country.
And the Western N.C. Presbytery is working on partnering with other organizations, not just those from the PCA. Wellspring has partnered with World Vision after finding each other working in the same valley under an engineer that Linton had recommended. This kind of cooperation between churches and NGOs is a difficult balance for projects in North Korea, where each organization and institution has its designated place.
Linton plans to meet soon with the North Korean UN ambassador again to talk about their current and ongoing projects. He reads through his to-do list: “I’ve still got to go to China,” he announced. China has become a new supplier for their expendables, partly because of “greater freedom of movement,” Linton says. And transportation between China and North Korea is much simpler because the distance is much smaller. Also, another trip above the 38th parallel is in the works as drilling starts again after the harshest parts of winter.
In the meantime Linton is practicing drilling in North Carolina, elders on the Wellspring committee are discussing ways to raise more money, and North Koreans are drinking from wells that are producing cold, cold water.
Emily Belz is a senior at Covenant College, editor of Bagpipe, the student newspaper, and a 2008 recipient of the Pulliam Journalism Fellowship.