Seoul (AsiaNews) - In order to combat the scourge of tuberculosis, which is apparently on the rise in North Korea in contrast to the world , the regime led by Kim Jong-un has given the Eugene Bell Foundation (a humanitarian organization that includes several Catholic priests ), permission to add another four sanatoriums to the list of those already aided by the group. The total now stands at 12 and now, as Fr . Gerard Hammond explains to AsiaNews, "we cover half of the west, from the city of Shinuiju in the north to Kaesong in the south".
Fr. Hammond has worked for 20 years with North Korea. Regional Superior of the Maryknoll missionaries, he has made more than 50 trips to the country: this year he obtained South Korean citizenship , a rare honor for a Westerner , in view of his humanitarian and Catholic commitment. Even the Eugene Bell Foundation has a long history of aid to the North. Founded in 1995, at the will of Stephen Linton, the delegation is allowed to visit some areas of North Korea twice a year. The delivery of medicines and medical equipment to eradicate tuberculosis is the purpose of these visits.
The country has about 22 million inhabitants, of which half live below the poverty line. As Fr. Hammond explained Tuberculosis "is propagated by air and affects those who suffer from malnutrition or general organic weakness. We are trying to do everything possible to stop the contagion, and in this our group is proactive. We do not hide our identity, requests for visas are honest and in the delegation of this last trip there were a total of five priests".
During the last visit "we visited some centers for the treatment of tuberculosis: the Foundation now supports a total of 12, in different parts of the country. We cover the middle of the west, from the city of Shinuiju in the north to the Kaesong in the south". In a rare sign of openness, the Pyongyang government gave the delegation a week longer than the two that are usually granted: also on the last trip the group was larger than usual. This has indicated that the regime may be more aware of the reality and fears the disease becoming endemic.
Thanks to the support of the Polish Embassy in Pyongyang, Fr. Hammond was also able to celebrate Mass in the capital of the North: "This year, more than 70 were present, a huge and really unexpected number. Many have agreed to sign the attendance sheet, which was a change from the past: it means that are not afraid to identify themselves, and have perhaps a greater degree of freedom".