CAFOD and the Catholic aid agency network Caritas Internationalis said international food and development aid are vital to help North Korea sustain its nascent economic reforms. Caritas coordinator for North Korea, Kathi Zellweger, said: "A sharp drop in donations threatens to undermine not only the health of vulnerable children, elderly and other people, but also the limited economic reforms that are already taking hold in North Korea. "You can feel that there is more momentum in the economic reforms. Making money has become very important. With the advent of free markets for food, some farmers are better off. Families with kitchen gardens and agricultural cooperatives are also allowed to plant and sell cash crops." Aid groups operating in North Korea have encouraged the hard line communist government to reform its economy. "Now we have the feeling there are good beginnings, we should continue to help," said Zellweger, who has visited North Korea nearly 50 times in the last nine years. International donors should give development aid as well as food, medical and other humanitarian aid, she said. "It's important to help North Korea, not only with humanitarian aid, because the country now is more open and the first steps are under way in the economic reform process." At least 1.5 million vulnerable people were likely to go hungry until the end of March. A lack of donations has caused a succession of "pipeline breaks" in food aid to 6.5 million North Koreans, who represent nearly a quarter of the country's 23 million people. Kathi Zellweger said North Korea was "always highly politicized" but attracting aid has become more difficult since the international standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear programme began 16 months ago. "If donations go down, where do we cut back?" she said. "Will the older people suddenly not get anything, or will you no longer feed the children? It's one of the most difficult decisions." In early February, the UN briefly suspended food aid to all but 100,000 North Koreans, with the remaining recipients fed mainly by a Caritas shipment of 2,500 tonnes of rice for 75,000 pregnant and nursing women. The small shipment was just a "drop on a hot rock", she said, providing less than half the recommended minimum daily calorie intake for the women for 135 days. Children are usually the worst affected by cutbacks in food aid, with many aid workers fearing that a recent fall in chronic malnutrition could be reversed. "It would be very regrettable to erase the achievements," Zellweger said. April and May, when a new break in the food pipeline is likely, is a "critical time", she said. Caritas received some 2 million dollars in donations for aid to North Korea last year, about 75 per cent of the 2.6 million dollars it requested.
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