Why we should aid 'bizarre' North Korea


Pangyo kindergarten_food provided 1 meal boiled wheat and boiled goats milkI have two lasting memories of my two trips to North Korea. The first was visiting the obstetrics unit of a hospital near Wonsan on the eastern coast; it looked like a medieval torture chamber. The second was visiting numerous orphanages where 14-year-old children looked as if they were only eight because they were so malnourished.

The latest escalation of tension between North and South Korea can only mean that these impressions will become reality more frequently.

The North Korea aid program of the Catholic agency Caritas Internationalis, now managed on behalf of the Confederation by Caritas Corea of the South, began in the mid-1990s after the harvest was devastated by floods and many tens of thousands died of starvation.

For more than a decade, Caritas Australia contributed significantly to the response, funding more than $1.15 million worth of grass-roots nutrition and humanitarian projects.

The program was gradually built up to include not just food aid but agricultural inputs, equipment for health centres, and work with the elderly and disabled. The food aid was targeted for the poorest groups such as orphans. Now there is a hepatitis B campaign as part of the package.

North Korea is the most bizarre place I have ever visited. It has been run since 1948 by the Kim dynasty of Communist dictators.

The Kim family is deified. In primary school classes, little chairs surround a plastic model of where the founding father, Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong-Il, were supposed to have been born. It looks like a crib scene from Bethlehem. No criticism of the family is tolerated and the people live in the most controlled state on Earth.

If roads need fixing, factory workers are drummed out of the factory on to the roads. Counties are regularly closed because of military manoeuvres or food shortages. Even the capital, Pyongyang, North Korea's 'showpiece', is largely devoid of traffic except pushbikes, and very few private shops are allowed.

The control extends to religion. There is a Catholic Church in Pyongyang and it holds a liturgical service each week and, when a priest is visiting, a Mass. Most parishioners are members of the government controlled Catholic Association and free speech among the parishioners is forbidden, as is all uncontrolled contact with foreigners.

It looks as if the sending of missiles to the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong — killing two marines and wounding civilians — was a flexing of the muscles for the dictator-in-waiting Kim Jong-Un, the current 'Dear Leader's' son.

As has been emphasised recently, North Korea is also a nuclear power and would, under the current paranoid leadership, have no compunction in lobbing a nuclear bomb at South Korea, Japan or any other perceived enemy. What is important to the Kims and their generals is not the North Korean people or other people's lives, but the maintenance of the regime.

Given all this, why should Caritas continue to have a program in North Korea? The Caritas starting point is the dignity of the human person, no matter who that person is or where that person lives. Caritas believes in a solidarity that, like Jesus' life and actions, tears down boundaries between peoples.

That is why Caritas is still in North Korea. It has not called the state part of the 'axis of evil' or any other name. It has instead concentrated on helping some of the poorest of the poor in the country itself, gaining the trust of the government, with whom you must work to have access to the people.

By supporting small, targeted programs, Caritas is working not just for the wellbeing of the poor in North Korea but ultimately for peace in a region of the world that is desperate for it.

Duncan MacLarenDuncan MacLaren coordinates Australian Catholic University's Refugee Program on the Thai-Burma border and lectures in Catholic Approaches to Humanitarian and Development Work. He worked for Caritas for over 25 years and, prior to coming to Australia in 2007, was based in the Vatican as Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis. Pictured: Children at Pangyo kindergarten, aided with food from Caritas.

Topic tags: Caritas, Kim dynasty, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong-Il, Pyongyang, south korea, missiles, Kim Jong-Un



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Existing comments

I agree that it is a far better idea to help organisations like Caritas to help children in countries like North Korea. I am sure that these children will one day enjoy greater freedom. In the meantime their survival is important.

It is also far more effective to spend money in helping people in their countries instead of trying to support an industry based on illegal people smuggling. Whilst most of the fund given to organisations like Caritas is spend helping people, money spent to support the illegal people smuggling industry is wasted on people smugglers, middlemen, lawyers and expensive accommodation

Beat Odermatt | 25 November 2010  

In the light of the attacks on South Korea of recent days you would wonder why North Korea has the money to spend on bombs while Caritas are supporting the humanitarian necessities. I can understand Caritas' contribution towards the needy but it is a matter of concern.

Enid Mulcare | 25 November 2010  

"the dignity of the human person" Would that I could keep that before my mind's eye as I go about my daily chores.
I'm glad Caritas is doing the work it is doing in North Korea. It reminds me that despite the short hand of media talk - North Korea - does not mean the North Korean people.

It means the political-military leadership and apparatus that controls every aspect of North Korean life.

How does one deal with such a leadership? Trying to change if from within - even by undercover destabilisation operations - seems impossible.
Normal inter-government negotiations seem to get nowhere.

Compromise is treated by the Communists as a sign of weakness. It's OK for the Japanese and the Americans to compromise but there is no quid pro quo.

The Chinese seem to revel in the perceived helplessness of the Americans and the Japaneses vis a vis North Korea.
Yet they seem to be the West's best chance at getting productive talks going.
I can't see the Chinese smugness changing.
That leaves the graded use of force leading to the use of startegic nuclear weapons before North Korea can make a nuclear weapon, and certainly before it can deliver it.
That means, as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the innocent suffer. Who will talk about the dignity of the human person then?

Uncle Pat | 25 November 2010  

Thanks for this prompt article - I agree with its thrust and hope that Caritas will continue to be well supported.

Although South Korea is being continually provoked by border 'incidents' I hope it can be encouraged to refrain from retaliation - where would escalation lead? - while the rest of the world follows the difficult diplomatic path with the North.

I wonder whether the 'routine' joint US/South Korean military exercises are really helpful in all this.

John Magee | 25 November 2010  

Those 2 kids are the cutest!

Bernie G | 26 November 2010  

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