Famine-torn North Korea has asked Europe to send them possibly BSE-infected meat scheduled for incineration. The government say they are ready to take the chance of their people contracting bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) years in the future, rather than than watch them die of starvation now. Kathi Zellweger, director of Caritas Hong Kong, one of the few foreign NGOs working in North Korea said: "This is a very understandable request. The country is in a desperate situation. The famine has continued since 1994. Children in particular are suffering from serious protein and fat deficiencies. It is now possible to test meat for BSE. If Germany is planning to kill 400,000 head of cattle, they could test them first and only destroy the infected ones - sending the rest as canned beef to North Korea." A combination of seven years of natural disasters, floods, tidal waves, and failed harvests, with the loss of support from the old Soviet bloc and complete economic breakdown has lead North Korea to the brink of total disaster, Kathi explained. South Korea was hit by the same disasters, but they were able to import 70 per cent of their food from abroad. On the east coast where Caritas mainly works, she said: "There are no food shops. Families were collecting rations from government supply points once a fortnight. Now all official channels have dried up. The last harvest was very bad. They're having the coldest winter in 50 years and there is no food to be bought." She said: "Eight million of the most vulnerable children and elderly people are receiving some support from the international community. The remaining 14 million are having to fend for themselves." Besides a severe food food shortage, North Korea lacks the most basic medical supplies. Kathi has witnessed heartbreaking scenes on her visits to North Korea. She said: "At one hospital they were using old beer bottles to hold liquids for intravenous feeding. Many of the children are growing up terribly stunted. I've seen classes of children that looked about ten and turned out to be 14 years old." Caritas works in several areas - providing food, medical supplies, agricultural support and education. Their major focus is the care of children and pregnant and nursing mothers. As the health service has collapsed Caritas sends basic drugs, medical supplies and equipment. "Because of their poor nutrition, many women are having complications with their pregnancies. TB and malaria are also making a comeback" she said. "In winter hospitals are almost empty because of the lack of heating." Caritas does some work with the small Korean Catholic Association and also collaborates with many government and community agencies in North Korea. Kathi said: "We have had to move very gently.The North Koreans have gone through huge changes in recent years. For so long they were cut off from the outside world and used to the government providing everything. They saw very few foreigners and were not used to having to receive support from abroad." She said she felt in the long term it would take more than a handful of NGOs to make a difference, but in the short term they were providing vital assistance and would have a necessary role to play there for a long time to come. In future she said North Korea would need to join international institutions like the IMF and begin to develop - perhaps on the lines of China. In spite of the traumatic events of recent years Kathi said there have been some positive developments. Last year a hundred families from north and south Korea who had not met since the partition, were reunited, and further reunions are planned. A summit was held between the presidents of both countries. On December 12, diplomatic relations between Korea and the UK were re-established, and diplomatic relations with Canada have also been formed recently. "At the Sidney Olympics the athletes from North and South Korea marched together in the parade - it was a groundbreaking moment" Kathi said.
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