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Monitoring team oversees food aid to ravaged North Korea

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Bangkok, Thailand

Representatives for Catholic Relief Services are part of an eight-member team now in North Korea to monitor a United Nations food assistance program.

The monitoring team arrived in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea Feb. 20 to oversee the distribution of 75,000 metric tons of U.S.-donated wheat through the U.N.’s World Food Program. The food aid will go to six of North Korea’s nine major provinces including North Hamgyong, an area particularly hard-hit by the country’s persistent food shortage.

The monitoring team is the fourth CRS has sent to North Korea since August 1997. CRS works with a consortium of U.S.-based private voluntary organizations, including Amigos Internacionales, CARE, Mercy Corps and World Vision, to provide monitoring teams for the U.N.-sponsored program. This team expects to complete the assignment in July.

CRS asked Maryknoll Frs. Thomas Dunleavy and Gerald Patrick O’Connor to serve as their representatives on the monitoring team. The Maryknoll priests have extensive experience in Asia and with relief work. O’Connor, who speaks Korean, has held various pastoral positions in South Korea since about 1971. Dunleavy, who is based in Bangkok, has most recently served as Maryknoll’s coordinator for refugee programs for all of Asia.

Food-for-work programs

They and other team members will oversee food-for-work programs in North Korea. Families whose members work on projects to rebuild dikes, irrigation ditches and roads receive a monthly food ration. A CRS statement said, “Food-for-work projects will support agricultural rehabilitation and contribute to the country’s food security by reclaiming and protecting North Korea’s scarce arable land.”

North Korea has been ravaged for the last several years by the decline of its economy and more recently by floods and drought, which have sparked food shortages of massive proportions and the collapse of water, sanitation, health and other social services. The country has relied on food aid to feed its people since 1995. Estimates on the death toll from famine since then range from one million to three million.

The World Food Program, UNICEF and the European Union conducted a nutrition survey in North Korea in September and October 1998. They found that 60 percent of children 6 months to 7 years old suffered from moderate or severe malnutrition and 16 percent of the children suffered acute malnutrition. This puts North Korea among the top 10 countries with the highest malnutrition rates in the world, according to the World Food Program.

The survey sampled 130 of the country’s 212 counties, representing more than 15 million people of which 2.1 million are children under the age of 7. North Korea has a total population of between 22 and 23 million people.

Sixty-two percent of the children surveyed showed stunted growth for their age. The survey report said that this indicates that the nutrition problem has probably existed in the country for many years. Wasting, which affected 16 percent of the children, reflects the current problem, the report said.

A major concern of the donors is that the food aid gets to ordinary citizens and not to North Korea’s million-man army. James DeHarpporte, the CRS regional coordinator based in Jakarta, Indonesia, said, “We’re quite certain that the food is going to the villagers.”

The monitors travel to sites to watch the food distribution and to check on progress of the various building projects. “We see the villagers. We see the work. We check the records,” DeHarpporte said. “We do checks on all of that.”

He added that the monitoring teams are themselves closely monitored by North Korean government officials. Inspections are planned and interactions are not spontaneous.

“Our first objective is to provide humanitarian assistance to people who are starving,” DeHarpporte said. “Secondly, to create better understanding and reconciliation” between Americans and North Koreans and between North Koreans and South Koreans.

‘Solidarity with the poor’

A third objective is “to express our solidarity with the poor,” he said, “and to do so in collaboration with Caritas agencies and others also working to alleviate the crisis in the north.” Caritas is an international Catholic network of relief and development aid programs. CRS is the member from the U.S. Catholic bishops.

In late April, a CRS delegation will travel to Pyongyang to deliver a mobile X-ray unit to a North Korean hospital. The request for the X-ray unit had been presented to a delegation from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State during a trip to North Korea in 1998.

In addition to its work with monitoring teams, CRS has provided nearly $1 million in private direct relief for North Korea since 1996. Much of this was for food purchased by Caritas Hong Kong and Caritas Japan. With other donations from the Caritas network, CRS has also provided food and medicines in programs that reach primarily children in schools and orphanages.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 1999