Despite Obstacles, Aid Continues to Reach North Korea

Despite Obstacles, Aid Continues to Reach North Korea

Holt International Children's Services sends nutrition biscuits to children in North Korea. Mercy Corps sends apple trees. World Vision helps hungry Koreans raise vegetables.

Despite North Korea's status as an international pariah and charter member of President Bush's "axis of evil," a small number of humanitarian oganizations continue to aid the poverty-stricken nation. The persistence of the relief workers, especially the few Americans who manage to get inside the country, surprises North Koreans, whose government demonizes the United States.

In April, James Reilly, a representative of the American Friends Service Committee, managed to bring three American classical musicians to perform in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. "When we were announced," Reilly says, "there was always an audible gasp from the crowd."

Recently, the obstacles to aid have increased. Flights have shut down between Beijing and Pyongyang due to fears of SARS, and a chill has descended on diplomatic relations as the United States and other nations confront the crisis over North Korea's revived nuclear-weapons program.

Lutheran World Relief, which was helping cooperative farms boost production, pulled out three months ago as donors diverted support to higher-profile destinations such as Iraq.

"We're not leaving out of coldness of heart," says Jonathan Frerichs, a Lutheran World Relief spokesman. "It's good management of limited resources."

Care, the Atlanta-based relief-and-development organization, also abandoned North Korea. "We felt that we did not have unimpeded access to communities that we needed to be sure that resources were reaching the populations that needed them most," says Rick Perera, a Care spokesman.

But other agencies, especially faith-based organizations, fight the odds.

"Our first motivation is to provide help wherever it's needed," says Victor Hsu, senior adviser to the executive director of Church World Service.

The Christian relief ministry recently sent 670 metric tons of fortified flour to kindergartens, nurseries and a hospital. Church World Service and the National Council of Churches USA have invited North Korean officials to a June 16-18 conference in Washington.

Church-based organizations, which include several South Korean groups, are not allowed to proselytize in the north, although Christian missionaries work to convert North Koreans who cross into China. But Bradley Martin, a former foreign correspondent who is now at Ohio University writing a book on North Korea, says missionaries covet their former stronghold in the north.

"The north was at one time a more fertile ground than South Korea" for missionaries, Martin says.

For now, groups such as the Quakers, who don't evangelize, concentrate on resuscitating North Korean farms. The American Friends Service Committee is helping farmers put in plants that add nitrogen to revive the soil in rice paddies.

"We are always trying to go more often than they would like us to go," says Randall Ireson, an American Friends Service Committee development-assistance coordinator. He works from home in Salem, Ore., because U.S. citizens aren't allowed to live in Pyongyang.

Holt International, a Eugene, Ore.-based organization known for arranging inter-country adoptions, sends about four tons of Chinese-made nutrition biscuits each month to children in the border town of Sinuiju, North Korea.

Gary Gamer, Holt's international-programs vice president, says North Korea might allow international adoptions someday.

Mercy Corps recently sent Nike-donated jackets and $250,000 worth of medical supplies to North Korea. Mercy Corps, a secular organization with religious origins, also continues to ship tens of thousands of apple trees for planting on farms south of Pyongyang.

Ells Culver, Mercy Corps co-founder and senior vice president, plans to bring North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, Han Song Ryol, to Mercy Corps' Oregon office in June.

In July, Culver plans to host a North Korean delegation to explore the potential of stocking rainbow trout in Korean lakes, as missionaries once did. Culver, who was prevented by SARS restrictions from making his 18th trip to North Korea in April, plans to route the delegation through Moscow.

International health authorities fear that SARS would devastate North Korea, its people already weakened by food shortages, and overwhelm its inadequate health system.

Overall, relief workers report that malnutrition has diminished in North Korea, although significant pockets remain.

"The nutrition status has improved," says Oh Jae Shik, a World Vision International regional director in Seoul who visited North Korea in March. "The children are beginning to have smiles, and they're much more active and running around."

The United Nations World Food Program, which shipped in 373,000 tons of wheat and other foodstuffs last year, is urgently appealing to the United States, South Korea, Canada, Germany and other donors to boost flagging donations. Japan, previously a major donor, stopped giving food this year after North Korea admitted it kidnapped Japanese citizens.

Shipping aid isn't easy, even when donors materialize. In China, a representative of Arkansas-based Heifer International wants to send two laptops to North Korean partners as well as more rabbits and other animals to help families become self-reliant.

"We bought the computers, but we can't get them into North Korea because the flights stopped," says Heifer's Chen Taiyong. "We send faxes to Pyongyang, but it's hard to get a reply."