10/18/2006, 00.00
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Nuclear test "affects Caritas aid for the people"

by Joseph Yun Li-sun

The director of the Korean Caritas, Fr Paul Jeremiah Hwang Yong-yeon, was the first foreigner to cross the border with North Korea after Pyongyang announced that it had carried out a nuclear test. He told AsiaNews how this experiment is sure to deal a heavy blow to the work of the Catholic organization and how ordinary people will pay the price.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – The nuclear test conducted by North Korea on 9 October last "will deal a hard blow to work of non-governmental organizations seeking to help the North Korean people." Caritas "will also be affected, although it has so far managed to press ahead with its mission among the poorest of the poor".

The director of the Korean Caritas, Fr Paul Jeremiah Hwang Yong-yeon, shared these concerns with AsiaNews. He was the first foreigner to cross the border to go to North Korea after Pyongyang announced that it had carried out a nuclear test. The priest, supported by his bishop, preferred to keep commitments made to the people of the North – despite warnings and demands from Seoul – and he went ahead to meet representatives of the Stalinist regime on 11 October.

He told AsiaNews: "The separation of the Korean peninsula and the war left severe wounds to people on both sides of the border, and the pains have not yet been healed although 53 years has already passed. There are many South Korean people, especially those who experienced the Korean War, who blame the Seoul government, saying the efforts of the government to dissolve the communist regime in the North have been unsatisfactory. In addition to this point, they insist that the dialogue with North Korea is useless and the government should stop sending all kind of humanitarian support and sever diplomatic relations with Pyongyang."

The priest said that "under the 'Sunshine Policy' of the former president Kim Dae-Jung, the South Korean government encouraged non-governmental organizations and supported their works for North Korea. Therefore, the NGOs' work for North Korea could continue without barriers even when the South and North struggled with political matters. The government's policy and the atmosphere have contributed to paving the way for harmony and mutual trust."

He continued: "The nuclear test has formed tension in relations between two Koreas. After the nuclear test on October 9, the government started to take more notice of the activities of NGOs working with Pyongyang. Moreover, government officials warned organizations supposed to visit North Korea to cancel their visit for security reasons. As a result, many organizations gave up their plans to go to meet North Korean partners."

This was not the decision taken by the Catholic organization: "In the midst of this situation, Caritas Korea was scheduled to have a meeting with its North Korean counterpart in Gaesung, North Korea on 11-12 October, to discuss humanitarian assistance and development cooperation works starting in 2007. From that date, the local Caritas will become the implementing partner of aid from Caritas Internationalis. We received many phone calls from government officials trying to stop us going to the North. But the bishop of Daejon and President of the national Caritas, Mgr Lazzaro You Heung-sik, made a decision to go ahead with the meeting as scheduled, saying nothing and no one would stop Caritas' humanitarian efforts to help vulnerable people in need."

Fr Hwang said: "Caritas explained the purpose of the visit to officials: to bring love to our suffering neighbors beyond politics or religion, representing all Caritas members in the world. We visited North Korea on 11 October and had a discussion on Caritas' future projects for the poor."

He continued: "I want to repeat that our work for the North Korean people cannot be stopped, not even by nuclear tests. However, if Pyongyang continues to defy the international community, many countries, especially South Korea, could stop or restrict part of the work of Caritas."

"Seoul has declared that humanitarian assistance and economic cooperation between the Koreas need to continue as part of efforts towards reconciliation, to stop tension between the two countries, despite differing opinions from the international society. Considering the government's position, however, I do not think that Caritas' work for North Korea will continue without legal barriers."

Then there is another, no less relevant, aspect: "Politics aside, this test will affect our work because the funds for each program of Caritas Internationalis come from donations from institutions and private entities worldwide. If North Korea attracts international aversion due to its unexpected actions, this might affect funds earmarked for its people. Willingness to donate could be weakened if the country destined to receive the funds has a negative image. The mission of Caritas, in line with the teachings of the Church, is to reach out to the poorest among the poor and so the nuclear test will hinder this work."

Fr Hwang added: "Pyongyang applies strict border controls and Seoul does the same. An international problem of such dimensions will bring about new, imposing barriers even for humanitarian work and the only, real victims will be North Korean people who will have no way of accessing resources they so desperately need."

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