A LEADING figure within the Asia Programme of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has spoken in Bradford on Avon about how they are trying to improve relationships between the United States of America and North Korea.

Lucy Roberts, Regional Director of the AFSC, spoke on 'Working for Peace in North Korea and Myanmar: Making a difference in Turbulent times' at a meeting organised by Members of Bradford on Avon Quakers. It took place during Quaker Week at St. Margaret's Hall on October 3.

Hazel Jones, of Bradford on Avon Quakers, said: “Through good strong relationships the AFSC have been able to promote the concept of diplomacy and the benefits of engaging with the United Nations. They also try to improve relations directly between the US and North Korea.

“AFSC have access to the US State Department where they have had some success in influencing thought there - they are able to do and observe things close to the ground that large NGOs or diplomats can't.”

Lucy Roberts is British and for several years previously worked for British-based Quaker Peace and Social Witness. AFSC, which is celebrating being 100 years old this year, has worked in North Korea since the 1980s.

Hazel added: “The country suffered a major famine in the mid-1990s and, working with a small Chinese staff with knowledge of the country and its language and customs, AFSC has helped improve local agricultural techniques working alongside small partner organisations.

“When visiting, Lucy has found that ordinary people are welcoming and friendly. Meeting caring Americans (and Brits!) can give North Korean people a more positive impression of real life outside their own country.”

AFSC also works in Myanmar. Just as with North Korea, needing government permission to operate at all means that working there involves accepting inherent limitations on what they can do.

For example, the organisation has not been allowed to work with the Rohingya in Rahine province but they do get Muslim and Buddhist groups in other parts of Myanmar to discuss questions of inequality.

Hazel added: “Sometimes they use arts gatherings involving writers and theatre when this can be the only way of getting people together. Foreign organisations can easily be expelled so great care is needed.”

Following each of the two presentations there were questions from the floor, chaired by Alan Pleydell, formerly the co-ordinator of European peace work for Quaker Peace and SocialWitness, leading to a lively discussion.