03/10/2005, 00.00
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Caritas, ten years helping a hungry North Korea

Caritas internationalis director speaks about his visit to the most isolated country in the world where health conditions are awful and children are extremely undernourished.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – Speaking about his recent trip to North Korea, Caritas Internationalis director Duncan MacLaren said that after ten years of Caritas operating in the country there were some positive signs but needs are still great.

Since 1995 Caritas Hong Kong under director Kaethi Zellweger has brought aid and delivered food to hundreds of thousands of children, especially orphans, pregnant women and new mothers. Caritas aid has also included assistance to farm co-ops and the health care sector.

According to MacLaren, there is some light in an otherwise dark situation. "In the five years since my last visit," he said, "there have been some positive changes—there is movement in the economy after the July 2002 reforms, there is more visible trading and more bikes on the road, for example. However, there are also growing gaps between the haves and have-nots.

For Zellweger, one factor behind the current emergency is the country's energy crisis. "This," she noted, "has a substantial impact on industrial output, harvests and the daily lives of the people struggling to survive in a climate that is often harsh".

"While in Hamhung," she explained, "we experienced snowfalls of 30 cm and witnessed people carrying brushwood for fuel and putting plastic sheeting in the windows to protect them from the cold."

Worse still, Mr McLaren pointed out, was "the state of the equipment in hospitals that would be better off in a medical museum. In one county hospital serving 60,000 people, the only drugs were the ones supplied by Caritas".

Yet there was a small silver lining. "I was impressed by the attempts of the doctors to serve their patients despite their outdated equipment," McLaren said.

Although bleak, the situation is therefore not totally hopeless. Some positive signs are coming from agriculture. Even if it still left a shortfall making 6.5 million people vulnerable and in need of food assistance, the harvest in 2004 was the best in ten years.

However slightly, child malnutrition is also declining. According to the World Food Program's North Korea operations, a random survey by it and UNICEF last October showed that the rate of malnutrition among children under the age of six had dropped from 42 per cent in 2002 to 37 per cent in 2004.

Caritas raised US$ 2.5 million for its North Korean programme and is set to launch another solidarity campaign this coming April. (LF)

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