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Obama and the Quakers’ North Korea Problem

In 1947, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the Friends Service Committee — non-governmental organizations belonging to the Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers — shared the Nobel Peace Prize. Presenting the award, Gunnar Jahn, chairman of the Nobel Committee, described the AFSC’s actions both during and after World War II. Seldom had the need for the Quakers’ relief operations been so great as during World War II. The Nazis, however, refused to allow the Quakers to operate in territory they controlled. The Third Reich was willing to make one exception, however. The Quakers could work in Poland, so long as they limited their assistance to those approved by the Germans. The AFSC refused to accept such restrictions. As the Allies beat back the Germans, the AFSC was ready, however, to assist “the prisoners who were released from concentration camps in 1945, all those who had to be repatriated from forced labor or POW camps in enemy countries, all the displaced persons who have no country to which they can return, all the homeless in their own countries, all the orphans, the hungry, the starving.”

Fast-forward to the present day. The AFSC operates a project in North Korea to help make collective farms more efficient. “In 1997, AFSC was one of the first two NGOs allowed to work directly with cooperative farms in the DPRK,” they explain, adding, “AFSC now works with four cooperative farms and with technical institutions to address production and soil fertility issues. AFSC country program also works with regional institutions and experts on training and exchange projects with DPRK.”

How times and values have changed. While the Quakers refused to compromise with the Nazis, they have no such qualms about Kim Jong-il’s conditionality. They ignore the fact that North Korea’s collective farms are slave-labor camps. Nor does the AFSC seek neutrality or to assist the true victims of the North’s reign of terror. For example, the AFSC does not help North Korean defectors who often arrive in the South traumatized and destitute.

The American Friends Service Committee reports that it teaches Human Rights Education at Sidwell Friends, where the Obamas send their daughters. Certainly, ideology played a role in their selection of Sidwell. “The choice makes sense at a philosophical level as well, because of how Quakers view the challenge of shaping children into socially responsible and spiritually aware adults,” Time explained.

Given the AFSC’s relationship with Sidwell, perhaps President Obama might ask the school and the AFSC to explain why enabling brutal dictatorships is consistent with the AFSC’s understanding of human rights, unless, of course, Obama also suffers from such moral blindness.