Faith-Based Group Determined to Keep Contact with N. Korea Despite Ultimatum

A faith-based relief organization is determined to keep contact with North Korea despite the communist nation's demand that the United Nation World Food Program terminate food aid.

Caritas, a Catholic relief, development and social service organization, said to AsiaNews on Sept. 23 that it will continue correspondent with North Korea despite the fact the nation has called on foreign non-government organizations (NGO’s) and the United Nation World Food Program to end aid and leave the country by the end of this year.

“After these statements from the Pyongyang leadership I think it is very important to keep contacts alive,” said Kathy Zellweger, the director of International Cooperation of Caritas Hong Kong.

“The important thing,” Zellweger noted, “is to remain in daily contact. A way to move ahead will be found.”

The North Korean deputy of foreign affairs minister, Choe Su Hon, had earlier announced that the United Nations and all foreign NGO’s should stop food aid supplies and leave the country. Hon declares that the food situation in North Korea has “improved” and “the attitude of the United States causes offence,” according to AsiaNews. AsiaNews also noted that the United States has been accused of politicizing the aid by connecting it to human rights agenda.

Zellweger, who heads Caritas’ North Korea program, could not comment on North Korea’s claim of “improved” conditions, saying to Asianews that, “exact information about international food supplies is not known and so it is very difficult to establish how much foreign aid the North Koreans actually need.”

In addition, North Korea also declared that aid should be distributed by North Korean staff instead of foreign aid workers and wants the WFP to focus now on long-term food security and development rather than emergency relief as in the past. This statement has resulted in controversy over the position of foreign humanitarian agencies in North Korea, AsiaNews reported.

"It's not possible for us to hand over our operations to national staff. We remain hopeful the decision will change once they realise the donors won't fund without an international presence," said Mr O'Rourke, country manager for Irish NGO Concern told AsiaNews.

Zellweger also noted that “they asked to turn projects of food distribution into internal development projects. This was a request directed not only to the United Nations but to all organizations working in the country at the moment.”

Professionals in the aid field attribute North Korea’s recent declaration to the growing relationship between South and North Korea. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, ships 100,000 tons of rice to North Korea via the WFP but could continue to aid North Korea without the WFP.

AsiaNews reported that following North Korea’s ultimatum, South Korea announced that “it will continue to send supplies outside UN projects.”

Zellweger responded to Seoul’s support of North Korea by commenting, “South Korea has always supplied food aid to the northern part of the peninsula, but they do not consider it as a humanitarian gesture: the two populations are united by profound ties,” according to AsiaNews.

Currently, there are 12 foreign NGO’s providing relief to North Korea, such as Save the Children, Handicap International and Premiere Urgence. Among these NGO’s, Caritas in Hong Kong was the first NGO to offer food relief to North Korea during the mid-nineties.

The Democratic Republic of Korea has experienced food and health crisis for over 10 years as a consequence of a drought in 1995 and 1997. There is no precise figure for the number of deaths resulting from the drought, but international organizations estimate more than two million people have died of hunger.

Caritas Internationalis is a Catholic organization consisting of 162 Catholic relief, development and social service organizations. The organization assists people with disabilities, the elderly and children, and developing agricultural systems. Caritas presently does not have clear plans as to how it will operate in North Korea under the new limitations.