Heidi Linton, a mother of three from Asheville, N.C., who leads the organization Christian Friends of Korea, has helped to deliver millions in aid to North Korea since 1995 and spends as much as three months a year in the country to support hepatitis and tuberculosis care centers. About 50 other Americans work in North Korea’s Rason Special Economic Zone, near the Russian border, on social entrepreneurship and humanitarian projects. There’s also a predominately American-run school, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, that has brought nearly 70 American professors and staff members each semester.
The Americans in North Korea are controversial because they provide services that indirectly help the North Korean regime. But career diplomats say they create a thin but important connection to the Hermit Kingdom. “They are very dedicated aid workers, they care deeply about the North Korean people,” former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson says of the expatriate community. “We have no diplomatic contact, we have no commercial contact, so some kind of humanitarian contact as a potential bridge to improve the relationship would be helpful.”