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It’s time to give from experience

World Vision Korea chief uses impoverished past to help others’ future

Few people know better than Park Jong-sam how tough it can be to grow up with nothing.

The head of World Vision Korea, who also goes by Dr. Sam Park, has battled poverty, malnutrition and disease.

Having fled North Korea to find refuge working for U.S. forces during the Korean War as a teenager, Park found himself penniless and alone after the 1953 armistice. Here Park came to know the hardships felt by the children across the globe that World Vision Korea helps today. 
World Vision Korea CEO Dr. Park Jong-sam (WVK)
World Vision Korea CEO Dr. Park Jong-sam (WVK)

“I slept on a Seoul street covered by just a straw mat,” said Park, now 75 and the charity’s CEO. “I know what it means to be a street boy, begging and worrying about where I am going to sleep.

“The strange thing is once I lived in a cave in the Dongdaemun area. I walked one hour and 90 minutes every day to go to school in Wangsimni. I collected wood for fuel on the way. Now, my apartment is within half a block of that cave. It is all built up, and there is a pizza place where the cave used to be!”

Park has kept his commitment to schooling, even when the energy to study came from stealing clumps of kimchi fallen from market stalls, and he has gained multiple degrees in Korea and America. His remarkable path to success mirrors the rise of World Vision in this country. The now international NGO was founded here in 1950 to help the hundreds of thousands of Korean children orphaned by the Korean War. It soon expanded its child sponsorship programs around the globe, and now also helps with disaster relief and community development in the places that need it most.

For Park, one of those places lies just north of the border.

WVK has gained access to put food on the table for North Korea’s poorest people through its agricultural programs. Park’s team has staffed conferences and institutes in the North with international farming experts capable of boosting food productivity through community farming projects.

But now, with some international observers saying the country is on the brink of disaster and with Park desperate to send much-needed food aid, charitable aid from South Korea is being blocked by the government here because of hostile relations between the Seoul and Pyongyang.

Waiting for aid

While the national government remains staunch regarding aid following the North’s attacks on the South’s Yeonpyeong Island and the Cheonan naval corvette last year, some regional authorities still wish to donate via WVK.

Gyeonggi Province, which borders North Korea along the Demilitarized Zone, has given the NGO 100 million won to help feed its starving Northern neighbor.

“We have the money now but we cannot send it,” said Park. “We have 170,000 cans of nutritional soup stuck in Incheon port that has been there for more than three months. That is 170,000 meals. What does that mean to the kids starving in North Korea? I am so desperate to send it. I know what hunger means from my own life.”

Seoul has recently allowed one batch of charity aid to go to the North but aid readied by WVK is still awaiting the green light as part of a second phase of help.

“Our waiting is almost hour by hour, day by day,” Park added. “People say emergency food goes to the military but we do monitoring and last time we went there I saw that the food aid was well-used.

“All the Korean people must speak out that any human life is more important than politics or any idealism. Don’t use food as a weapon of punishment.”

Park acknowledged, however that: “As an NGO it is easy for us to say, but I do sympathize with the government officials as they have other political concerns and responsibilities that must be met.”

And Park still has his own concerns for children in the relatively affluent South.

Korea’s developing economy and welfare legislation has helped address children’s basic needs here. But Park said South Korea does not yet fully meet U.N. conventions on children’s rights. 
Kids help out with World Vision Korea’s long-running Love Loaf campaign (WVK)
Kids help out with World Vision Korea’s long-running Love Loaf campaign (WVK)

Developing needs

“As a whole maybe we are almost there in terms of providing food, clothing and primary education but in terms of securing children’s rights I think we have a long way to go,” he said.

“The concern now is over abuse, neglect and what relative poverty means to growing-up children.”

He pointed to the widening gap between rich and poor in terms of educational opportunities and the need to enshrine children’s rights in family law.

“In transition from developing country to developed country our hardware systems such as social welfare family law and delivery systems are not matching up with our newly emerging social problems for children.”

WVK’s rights education programs targeted at children in Gangwon Province and other areas, as well as support centers catering to children’s basic food and education needs throughout the country are part of the NGO’s efforts to address such issues.

He applauded WVK’s development alongside the rapid advancement of the country over the last 60 years. World Vision International now works in 100 countries, with 20 donating and the others receiving help ― and is the Christian charity’s fourth-largest giving country behind just the U.S., Canada and Australia.

The charity received 153 billion won in donations in 2010. While a little more than 13 billion won went to sponsoring kids here last year, it spent 76 billion won to sponsor kids overseas.

Now, the charity is now giving global citizenship lessons in schools to teach Korean kids how to help people in need. One project sees each student in a class donate 1,000 won to add up to the 30,000 a month WVK needs to sponsor a child in the developing world.

“Because we have been through poverty ourselves, the Korean people to participate to give to others,” said Park.

And Park, who is also a Christian minister, has no difficulty in telling others to give: “Instead of Korean people just bragging about the Korean Wave we have to give back to other people. With privilege comes responsibility.”

By Kirsty Taylor (
Korea Herald Youtube