1998 NCC News Archives

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Hope, Distress Intertwined in North Korea,
Erich Weingartner Reports

NEW YORK, July 10, 1998 ---- North Korea’s slow-moving, long-term shortage of food has left an entire nation weakened and vulnerable to disease. People continue to live very much on the edge, and the situation could tip back over into famine at any time. Yet there is hope even in the midst of continuing distress.

That is the report of Erich Weingartner, serving within the World Food Programme in Pyongyang, North Korea, for the past year as liaison officer to non-governmental organizations ("ngos"). He took five days (July 6-10) out of his month-long "home leave" for meetings in New York and Washington, D.C., with governmental and non-governmental bodies, including the churches, and with news media. He will return to North Korea next week for another term.

A member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and former Executive Secretary in the Commission of Churches on International Affairs for the World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland, Mr. Weingartner was nominated to his WFP post by Church World Service (CWS)*, the humanitarian response ministry of the (U.S.) National Council of Churches, which hosted him during his U.S. visit.

Responsible for tracking ngos’ humanitarian aid from arrival through distribution, his expenses in Pyongyang are paid by an international coalition of humanitarian agencies, with CWS as the lead agency.

A series of floods, tidal waves and drought led to widespread crop failures three years’ running (1995-97) in North Korea, a mountainous country with only 20 percent arable land.

Few, if any, North Americans have broader knowledge of the food crisis in North Korea than Erich Weingartner. He is an officer of the interagency forum in Pyongyang, trains World Food Programme monitors and travels extensively in country -- he has been in all but 39 of North Korea’s 210 counties -- to observe the food situation and distribution of donated aid.

"When I arrived in North Korea last June," he said, "I saw some of the worst cases of malnutrition I have seen anywhere in the world. In many nurseries and kindergartens, I saw rows of emaciated children lying still, and they looked like they wouldn’t survive." In fact, many children died.

The World Food Programme, a United Nations agency that receives donations from both governments and non-governmental organizations, put concentrated effort into feeding children up to age six, and as a result, "we are not seeing the same extent of malnutrition this year," Mr. Weingartner said. Now, when we visit a kindergarten, we may be told, ‘We don’t have malnutrition anymore.’ But they may say, ‘We have 10 weak children.’"

Now diarrhea has become common among children, aggravated by the breakdown of North Korea’s water purification system and a severe shortage of medicines and medical supplies. "Now I see school-aged children in the hospitals -- for example, 11-year-olds so thin, their growth so stunted that they look like five-year-olds. On home visits I sometimes find school-aged children. When I ask, ‘Shouldn’t he be in school?,’ I may be told, ‘Well, he’s been ill.’"

In response, the World Food Programme -- while continuing its assistance to preschoolers as a priority -- has initiated a "school snack project" that will provide children a daily, high-energy snack. And the European Community is targetting its 86,000 metric tons in food aid this year to school-aged children, Mr. Weingartner said. Other donors are targetting other vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, nursing mothers and the elderly.

According to the United Nations, last year’s rice and corn harvest in North Korea fell 1.8 million metric tons short of the six to seven million tons needed by the nation’s 23 million people until this year’s harvest, and the government rations ran out in April. The World Food Programme has appealed for 658,000 metric tons in food aid, but has received pledges from the international community for only about 300,000 tons, Mr. Weingartner said.

He expressed his hope that projects like the school snacks project, along with a growing number of projects seeking to have a longer-term impact on North Korea’s agricultural capacity, will help attract additional donations. "Donors want to see signs that change will happen to solve the problem eventually," Mr. Weingartner said.

"North Korea needs not only food now but food security, a rebuilding of its infrastructure to the point where it can handle its own problems," he told colleagues in faith-based humanitarian organizations in New York on Friday. "Churches in the ‘West’ have an important advocacy role, to point governments in the direction of long-term solutions. Capital, investments, lifting of sanctions – all this is important and must go hand-in-hand with food aid."

This week in New York and Washington, D.C., Mr. Weingartner’s appointments included the National Security Council, U.S. Institute for Peace, World Bank, Adventist Disaster Relief Agency, US AID, U.S. State Department, InterAction, Church World Service/NCC, Korea Sharing Movement and members of Congress. Here are some more of the stories he is telling -- stories of distress and of hope:

* "Despite North Korea’s deep embarrassment at having to accept international donations to survive, this crisis has given the opportunity for the international community to build some bridges to a people isolated for some 50 years," he said.

"The North Korean people know that when they are really in trouble, even their mortal enemies are willing to put aside politics and help. We have a chance really to make peace with our concern. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate they are not alone. It’s light for the future."

* Mr. Weingartner praised the continuing generosity of the United States government (200,000 metric tons of food aid pledged this year) and the genuine interest, especially by churches and other non-governmental organizations, "in what’s happening to people in North Korea. Many ngos send delegations, then return home to share the information."

For example, a delegation from the Irish agency Trocaire described the Irish Potato Famine and told everyone they met, "We know what famine is about. We want to be in solidarity," and a great bond developed with many ordinary North Koreans, Mr. Weingartner said.

* North Koreans are growing vegetables on virtually every spare inch of land, including on high, steeped mountainsides and railroad slopes -- helping short term but worrisome longer term because of the exposure of land to erosion. They’ve dug up their lawns to plant kitchen gardens. One family expanded its kitchen garden by digging a foot or two into the dirt road in front of their house.

Families raise rabbits, chickens and sometimes even a pig in one room of their house or apartment. People search out "alternative foods" – edible grasses, seaweed, mushrooms, bark, roots, berries – often gathering and processing these commodities collectively for distribution community-wide.

* Extra produce is sold or traded in public markets. A monthly, hush hush phenomenon barely a year ago, now public markets take place as often as three times a week and are talked about openly.

* Hospitals are surrounded by herb gardens, for production of alternative medicines. There is not much else in stock. Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and others are giving particular attention to acquiring medicines, updating medical equipment and techniques for capable but heretofore isolated medical professionals and supporting public health education on malnutrition-related problems.

* "I am able to travel freely, along with my interpreter and driver," Mr. Weingartner said. "We meet with county officials. We ask to go to this nursery or that kindergarten. We may if we know where it is and, increasingly, we do. Access is not perfect, but it’s becoming better and better.

"While we’re looking at where and how our commodities are being used, we’re also collecting information about people’s health. We go right into homes, visit hospitals, and talk with people waiting in line for food. People are always gracious. They thank me. I tell them it’s not me personally, there are many concerned people overseas interested in helping.

"People say it’s very difficult for them to ‘show their hands,’ that is, ‘to ask for a handout.’ One woman told me, ‘We’d rather be the ones to give the aid. If you ever have difficulty, and once we are back in a good situation, we hope we can return 10 times what you gave to us.’ People are reluctant to accept the aid. They are accepting it because they have to. They are going to be willing to return the favor. I think we’re building the future with this help."


* Church World Service, which has a long history of contact with North Korea, especially with the Korean Christians Federation, has provided more than $2.8 million in humanitarian assistance to North Korea since 1996, including food, medicine, clothing, blankets, diesel generators and greenhouses.

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