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Aid workers urge world to help North Korea

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Bangkok, Thailand

North Korea is not likely to win any popularity contests among the community of nations, but Catholic relief workers are involved in relentless efforts to convince the world to send food relief to the country’s starving population.

“The reality is pretty grim,” said Kathi Zellweger. She made her 22nd trip to North Korea in March and spoke to NCR a couple days after her return.

“Hunger is the everyday reality of North Koreans,” said Zellweger, a 20-year veteran with Caritas Hong Kong and now director of the group’s international programs, which has included overseeing Caritas’ work in North Korea since 1995.

“Hardship and suffering is clearly visible,” said Zellweger who, in seeking emergency food aid, often runs into hostile reactions to the North Korean government.

In her latest trip, Zellweger visited areas of the country just opened up to workers representing nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations. One memory stands out from her most recent trip. She was speaking to a group of girls, each of whom she presumed to be around 12 years old. She learned that they were 16 years old. “Children are small. ... This is an indication that food has been a problem for some years now,” Zellweger said.

She also reported seeing few pregnant women. The pregnant women she did see reported gaining only 5 kilograms or less during their pregnancies. Weight gain for a normal pregnancy should be around 10 kilograms. The children born to these mothers will have problems, she said simply.

“My concern is really this spring,” she said. During the 1998 fall harvest, the U.N. World Food Program projected that North Korean food stocks would last about eight months. This prediction was reconfirmed when the World Food Program announced on April 2 that North Korean government food stocks would be depleted within a matter of days.

Large shipments of aid donated by the United States, the European Union and other donors were coming in at exactly the right time, the World Food Program noted. The agency also cautioned that nearly all the aid was earmarked for specific groups, mainly young children, leaving the population at large, and especially adults in urban areas, vulnerable.

“We know it will be difficult again this spring,” Zellweger said. She admits that it is not easy to raise money for North Korean relief. “The international community only reacts when they see the horror pictures,” she said. “We should do something now before we start seeing the horror pictures again.”

Aiding a ‘gangster state’

What should be done? How much longer will the international committee support food aid to a country that has been described as “a gangster state”? Numerous reports say North Korea earns hard currency three ways: selling drugs, selling missiles and selling counterfeit U.S. $100 bills.

North Korea is also thought to be developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that it could launch from a multistage missile. This is straining any compassion members of Congress may have felt for suffering North Koreans. Congressional Republicans on key House committees are saying continued food aid may be rewarding North Korea’s bad behavior instead of deterring it.

In January, Caritas Hong Kong launched a new aid appeal for North Korean programs, hoping to raise $5.95 million in 1999. In her appeal letter, Zellweger addressed questions about North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons. “This fact underscores the necessity of renewing efforts to draw Pyongyang out of its isolation. Cornering North Korea through crippling sanctions is to court danger on a potentially catastrophic scale.”

Standing on the cusp of that catastrophe is, of course, South Korea. But generally, South Koreans don’t seem to feel the panic the country’s allies feel. The Korean peninsula has been divided for nearly 50 years, first by war and then by ideology. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who took office in February 1998, began a new era of North-South relations by declaring a “sunshine policy” of opening up and engaging the North.

Reunification a goal

Caritas Coreana [Coreana means Korea] has channeled more than $1 million in U.S. funds to North Korea through Caritas Hong Kong since 1994. “Our involvement is not a direct one but indirect due to the political reasons,” said Polycarp Js. Choe, national secretary of Caritas Coreana.

“The official policy of the Korean Catholic church is to provide assistance to starving people in North Korea as much as possible,” Choe said. Food aid is the priority now, and agricultural development will be the next stage, but the ultimate goal is “reconciliation between North and South Korean peoples.”

“The church believes that political unification is necessary, but reunification would come from the reconciliation of the peoples,” Choe said.

The stumbling block for reconciliation is the hatred and hostility accumulated for over 50 years, which, Choe said, has historical and ideological roots, but “also the constant brainwashing efforts of both regimes for the last 50 years to hate each other.”

“In such circumstances, the efforts of the church are first to get rid of these feelings among the Korean people in the South, especially among the Catholics. Many organizations and groups within the church are doing this.”

The national episcopal conference has a committee for the evangelization of North Korea and a special commission on reconciliation of the Korean people. Nearly every diocese has similar local commissions. The Catholic Priests Association for the Realization of Justice, formed in 1974 to challenge the then-military dictatorship of South Korea, has been active in making contacts with the North. Fr. Paul Moon Kyu-hyon visited North Korea in 1989. Arrested on his return, he spent 3 years in jail.

In August 1998, Moon visited North Korea again and attended a North Korea-sponsored reunification festival. He was arrested and spent 55 days in jail. Eight other priests from the association also traveled to the North. They did not attend the festival and were not arrested.

“Through all these efforts over the years, most Catholics accept the people in the North as their brothers and sisters,” Choe said.

He also said that food aid is drawing North Korea out of its isolation. “When food aid started, North Korea had to open the door slightly,” Choe said. People who have visited North Korea several times have noted positive changes, which Choe attributes to the door that food aid opened.

Best hope for progress

Zellweger, in her appeal letter, wrote, “Constructive engagement with Pyongyang offers the best hope of progress. Aid agencies have a role to play not only by providing charity but by creating an atmosphere for dialogue, for mutual understanding, for developing common strategies, methods and initiatives and concrete actions.”

Zellweger told NCR, “Humanitarian aid should not be used for political bargaining.

“You give aid to people in need,” she said. “Often that happens in very difficult situations. North Korea is a case in point.”

Amartya Sen, the Indian economist who won a 1998 Nobel Prize for his analysis of famine, said, “Any idea that stopping [food aid] will weaken the regime is not true. Dictatorial regimes are not strengthened by sending food or weakened by not sending it. They can take a lot of beating of their population,” he said during a meeting with the press in an early 1999 visit to Seoul. “They are quite willing to make sacrifices -- just not their own.

“You might as well send food -- it does some good for the poor people who are suffering,” he said.

Echoing those thoughts, Zellweger said, “The suffering [in North Korea] will continue to grow. This would not change if less aid was going in.”

Choe said, “The food aid is a humanitarian effort, but its impact will contribute to peace in the region.

“In the beginning, there was a fear that food aid would be misused for the military. But at the present moment there is a consensus among the people that food aid is needed and will be a help for national unification,” he said.

“Of course, there are people [in South Korea] who are against the food aid, but it seems that they are a minority and not outspoken. In spite of negative actions of the North Koreans [such as nuclear weapons, missile demonstrations, the incursion of armed spy ships and clandestine submarines], South Korean people are still in favor of food aid.”

“There is a tendency among the people to separate the political agenda from the humanitarian aid, which means the separation of the communist regime from the innocent ordinary people in the North,” Choe said.

“People gradually realize that the hatred and hostility is not for their brothers and sisters in the North, but for the dominant ruling class of the regime,” he said. “People are thinking that the innocent, starving people are the victims of the regime.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999