Käthi Zellweger, director of projects for Caritas-Hong Kong, a Catholic relief group, has coordinated aid to North Korea for years. She talked about the situation with the Vatican agency Fides.
Q: What is the present situation in North Korea with regards to food shortage, malnutrition, and health in general?
Zellweger: It is not as desperate as it was in 1995. Thanks to help from many sides, the food situation has improved and in 2001 the harvest was better than in 1995. However, this does not mean that there is now enough food for everyone. There are still vulnerable categories such as children under 6, pregnant women and old people who need regular food supplies.
With regards to health care, nothing much has changed. North Korea has hospitals and personnel but it lacks basic medicines and this makes it difficult for hospitals to function.
An interesting recent survey showed that in South Korea the average height of 7-year-old children is 1 meter 25 centimeters, and 26 kilos (57 pounds) in weight, compared to 7-year-olds in North Korea who are 1 meter 5 centimeters in height and weigh only 16 kilos (35 pounds). This shows what has happened and what will happen for the next generation because the consequence of hunger is seriously retarded growth — physical and mental.
Q: Does the social-political situation facilitate international assistance?
Zellweger: Humanitarian aid is always welcome as long as it has no political motivation. When this is the case, then aid is not welcomed. Caritas has never had any difficulty; our help has always been accepted. We have always found the door open.
Q: What are your present plans to help North Korea? And what are your relations with North Korean authorities?
Zellweger: In April this year we launched a new annual campaign to collect $2.6 million for our five-year assistance program to North Korea. For the first time the North Koreans took an active part in planning the program.
In November 2001 we, Caritas-Hong Kong, had a meeting in Beijing with Caritas-South Korea and North Korean authorities. This was the first time that representatives of North and South Korea sat at the same table. It was a great step forward.
When we made our appeal for funds we presented three main objectives: to continue food assistance with the help of U.N. agencies, in particular supplying oil and cereals; support farming in North Korea to increase farm production although it will take years before North Korea is able to produce enough. They will need help for a long time, until changes are made.
The third objective is to improve health care. We want to supply basic equipment and medicines, particularly for maternity assistance. In fact, malnutrition leads to complications in childbirth. Moreover, children born underweight need special assistance.
Q: Are other aid agencies willing to cooperate with Caritas?
Zellweger: Yes, we work with other agencies, the U.N. in particular and with the local authorities. Our last appeal for funds brought assistance for 73% from Catholic organizations and 27% from non-Catholic agencies. In fact, we have a good number of non-Catholic agencies working with us. We know it is important to work together.
Q: What is the role of the Catholic Church in North Korea?
Zellweger: The Church in North Korea is very small. Official figures put the number of Catholics at 3,000, and 800 of these are in Pyongyang. Unfortunately, there are no priests, which means that Mass can be said only when clergy from other countries come visiting: for example, on the occasion of the annual visit by the Holy See delegation, this year in May. I wish this could happen more often.
The Mass was well attended and the surprise was that there were many non-Korean Catholics present and perhaps for the first time it was obvious that a regular Catholic liturgical service would be necessary in North Korea. With regard to assistance, the Church in North Korea lacks the structures necessary for taking part in humanitarian programs.
Q: It is two years since the beginning of Korea´s “sunshine policy” for North-South reconciliation. What has changed in North-South relations?
Zellweger: Sad to say the initial optimism, especially among South Koreans, is gradually disappearing because little progress has been made. The political problems which face the president of South Korea do not favor progress in reconciliation.
There will be presidential elections in December this year and any incoming president is expected to continue commitment to reconciliation because it is clear to everyone that dialogue is the only path to achieve change.