Few people get a glimpse into the obscure lives of North Korean citizens, but Father Jerry Hammond of Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers is a rare exception. He has traveled to North Korea 58 times throughout his life on humanitarian missions to provide treatment for North Koreans suffering from tuberculosis.

Father Hammond addressed representatives from various faith traditions at an Action for Korea United conference in Seoul over the summer to bring attention to the urgent situation. “The scariest thing in the world is negligence. Your attention is very important to the North Koreans who are still suffering now.”

“The scariest thing in the world is negligence. Your attention is very important to the North Koreans who are still suffering now.”

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that has a high incidence and mortality rates in North Korea, where poverty, malnutrition, and inconsistent treatment are all contributing factors to the spread of the disease. The Eugene Bell Foundation partners with Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers to provide professional diagnoses, treatment, and hand-delivered medications directly to patients biannually.  

Civil society leaders gather for an Action for Korea United forum

According to Father Hammond, the likelihood of curing the disease is promising for patients receiving consistent treatment but the problem is their limited reach. “Presently, there are a total of 12 tuberculosis treatment centers in North Korea, including Pyongyang, North Pyongan, North Hwanghae, and Hamheung area, and the number of patients receiving hospital treatment is about 2,000 but, the actual number of patients is much larger. It’s impossible to help everyone.”

Yet Father Hammond remained optimistic as he saw firsthand the lives they have touched. “Patients who have been treated say through their eyes, ‘Thank you for saving my life.'”

Widespread disease in the North is just one of many challenges facing the Korean peninsula due to their ongoing division. Father Hammond expressed his sorrow for the predicament of the divided Korean peninsula that previously lived as one people for five millennia.

He believes that people of faith should not ignore the suffering of others and urged the Christians, Catholics, and Buddhists in attendance to consider their moral responsibility to the North Koreans.

He contrasted today’s culture of individualism and apathy to values of the past that emphasized caring for one’s neighbors.

As members of the same human family that transcend religious and national boundaries, people of faith should lead the way in caring for vulnerable members of our global family. Father Hammond concluded the conference with words that he has embodied throughout his own life. “Gather your strength with sacrifice and a loving heart.”