Caritas report on North Korea

 Kathi Zellweger director of international cooperation Caritas Hong Kong recently visited North Korea, where the agency has been working since 1995. She said: "During the 10-day visit, access to institutions and beneficiaries was generally good and officials at various levels were appreciative of the assistance received. The quality of interaction is improving, but the need for continuous dialogue remains. There is a tendency to present 'the ideal world' rather than to admit difficulties encountered. Even if the problems are obvious to a visitor, the concept of 'saving face' takes prevalence." With regard to the present situation Miss Zellweger said: "While international support and improved harvests have removed the immediate threat of famine, levels of malnutrition remain high. The planned UNICEF/WFP nutritional survey to be conducted this fall will provide an important insight in the present causes of malnutrition in the DPRK and guidance for future interventions. Newly-emerging vulnerable groups tend to reside in urban or suburban areas. Families visited reported an extremely high expenditure on food. In one case some 80% of the family income was spent on food; another family reported that only half of the family income was for food as farming relatives provided regular support. In general, the food basket of North Korean families remains unbalanced. The emphasis tends to be on cereals and more focus is needed on the availability of, and access to, proteins, fats and micronutrients." Caritas is also helping to rebuild a 300 bed hospital in Ryongchong which should reopen in spring 2005. With regard to help for children she said: "Growing up as an orphan in a boarding school is hard anywhere. Male principals who are obviously not used to running a home manage a number of boarding schools. The schools are usually run down and lack any homely atmosphere with children who are not only extremely stunted, but also dirty and smell badly. Caritas donations of canned fish, sugar, clothing, soap, toys and diapers and PVC flooring were observed, with shoes being another desperate need. The canned meat received from MCC was praised and even for the empty cans there was a market. Staff also asked for increased rations of meat and canned fish." Kathi closed with a plea for help: "For the annual program the amount needed is US$ 2.3 million and so far only about 50 percent has been pledged or received." Caritas Hong was one of the first aid agencies allowed to operate in North Korea and over the years it has supplied a total sum of at least 27 million dollars worth of aid. Source: FIDES/Caritas