Last month, the regional superior of Maryknoll missionaries took part in a humanitarian mission. The Eugene Bell Foundation delegation treated some 3,000 people suffering from multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. South Korea is split on sending food aid, but for the clergyman, "more compassion is needed. We must take a risk.”
Seoul (AsiaNews) – North Koreans are "exhausted by sanctions". Because of the country’s food emergency, life is increasingly difficult, making malnutrition-related diseases endemic, this according to Fr Gerard Hammond, regional superior of the Maryknoll missionaries (MM) in Korea.
The 85-year-old priest is a member of the Eugene Bell Foundation (EBF), a Christian NGO that has been helping tuberculosis patients in North Korea for years. He spoke to AsiaNews about the NGO’s humanitarian mission on 23 April-14 May, of which he was a part.
In addition to a young confrere, four other priests went with him: a French missionary from the Society for Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP), an Italian Oblate priest (OMI) and two Mexicans from the Missionaries of Guadalupe (MG).
On 17 May, North Korean state media reported that rainfall in the country was at its lowest point in over 100 years. Between January and 15 May, only 56.3 millimetres of rain or snow fell on the country. The ongoing drought worsened existing serious food shortage for the population.
Given the situation, South Korea is drawing up plans to provide food assistance to help the North cope with the emergency whilst keeping channels open with Pyongyang despite stalled talks and the latter’s recent missile tests.
In early May, the World Food Programme estimated that North Korea had its worst food shortfall since 2008-2009. About 10.1 million people, or 40 per cent of the population, are food insecure and in urgent need of food assistance.
"In South Korea, there is a great debate as to whether send humanitarian aid to the North or not,” Fr Hammond explained. “The country is split: Some are convinced that Pyongyang is reselling food, like rice.”
"In my opinion, this is possible but more compassion is needed. We must take a risk. Every time we visit North Korea, the sick are more and more numerous. Multidrug resistant tuberculosis is a disease that thrives with malnutrition."
In its latest visit, the EBF delegation treated about 3,000 people with from multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in 12 centres in four provinces – North Pyongan, South Pyongan, North Hwanghae and South Hwanghae – managed by the North Korean government together with the EBF.
"The twelve centres where we operate are located along the west coast of the country, where about a third of the North Korean population is concentrated. To reach the facilities, it is necessary to go through Pyongyang. It can therefore be said that my observations concern at least half of North Korea.
"Even in this part of the country, which is the better off, the situation is really hard. Along the east coast it is even worse. Obviously, residents of the capital are an exception. It’s sowing season, so work in the fields is hectic.”
"People farm every square inch of land to get the best crop possible. However, famines have occasionally occurred and this is clearly visible in the countryside. Ordinary people are suffering a lot because of sanctions. They are tightening their belts; they need rice.”
EBF workers are closely monitored by North Korean authorities, but are still able to work effectively with government officials. "Unfortunately, we cannot exchange too many words with patients," Fr Hammond noted. “I help the medical staff during the sputum test, when patients cough to expel the phlegm. Through this examination, we determine who will receive the medicines.”
"This is the time when patients feel most vulnerable, desperate. They know that some of us are priests and they thank us saying: ‘Thank you for what are you doing for our lives’ or ‘Thank you for [bringing] hope.’ The name of the donor is on the boxes we bring. On many, 'Catholic Church' is written. This is how they know that the Church is doing something for them.”
But “we do not proselytise. People's needs are more important than religion or politics. We act as a bridge between the two Koreas, so we try to create a climate of trust that can facilitate the work of those who will come after us."
(Photo credit: Eugene Bell Foundation).