NEW YORK CITY - Behind the mounting tensions between North Korea and the United States remains a harsh reality - millions of North Koreans rely on donated food aid to stay alive. In response, the global humanitarian agency Church World Service is continuing its eight-year-old program of humanitarian assistance and joining with ecumenical partners to seek to address the political impasse.
A shipment of nearly 1.5 million pounds of fortified flour, donated by CWS, arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea, on March 26. The flour was sent in response to a direct appeal from the United Nations World Food Program, an important source of aid for hungry North Koreans. Victor Hsu, Senior Advisor to the CWS Executive Director, is visiting North Korea April 1-5 to monitor distribution of the donated flour.
"After years of crop failures, disastrous weather and an economy that is at best described as fragile and embattled, millions of North Koreans today rely on this food to stay alive," said the Rev. John L. McCullough, CWS Executive Director.
The recent breakdown in dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea (DPRK) and the escalation in war rhetoric have severely disrupted the political climate conducive to continued improvement in inter-Korean talks and the flow of urgently needed humanitarian food aid, he said.
"Humanitarian workers in the field say that halting humanitarian aid to North Korea will not break this political stalemate; rather, it will leave millions of people in a situation where they could easily slip back into a state of crisis," the Rev. McCullough said.
Church World Service, the global humanitarian agency of the 36 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican member denominations of the National Council of Churches (U.S.), has provided $4,250,029 in food aid to North Korea since the outbreak of the food crisis in 1996, and has played a leadership role in InterAction in encouraging humanitarian assistance to the famine-stricken DPRK.
This latest donation - 660 metric tons (more than 1.455 million pounds) of fortified flour, valued at $151,800 - is intended to go to baby homes, childrens centers, nurseries, pregnant and nursing women and kindergartens in Chagang and North Pyongan Provinces.
Mr. Hsu said that while he is in North Korea, he expects to consult with staff of the World Food Program, particularly the Food Aid Liaison Unit (FALU); the Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee, and the Protestant Korean Christians Federation (KCF), the largest religious association in North Korea with an estimated 10,000 members countrywide.
"I hope to use the visit to collect first-hand impressions and information that would be useful for our continued support of future shipments," Mr. Hsu said. He also indicated that North Koreas United Nations Mission had informed him that the government would very much welcome continued humanitarian aid by Church World Service.
United Nations Issues Urgent Appeals
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the World Food Program and UNICEF have issued urgent appeals calling attention to the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in North Korea.
According to the World Food Program, North Korea will need about two million metric tons of grain from external sources, purchased or donated, in 2003. In February, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced an initial U.S. contribution of 40,000 tons of commodities, adding that a further 60,000 tons would be made available if improvements in WFPs ability to access the needy and monitor distributions are allowed.
"The situation this year is certainly grave given that the international community will be able to bring in at most 250,000 metric tons, leaving the country short by 1.75 million metric tons," Mr. Hsu said. North Korea does not have at its disposal the foreign currency to buy and import the deficit amount, he said.
CWS Emergency Response Program Director Rick Augsburger noted that "neither industrial nor agro-production is able to sufficiently provide goods for consumption and for a decent livelihood for the nations 22 million people."
On Monday (March 31), Church World Service issued its latest annual appeal to its member churches for support of relief and rehabilitation programs in North Korea in the areas of agriculture and health. Relief assistance will continue to be available in case of new disasters and for the most vulnerable sections of the population, CWS confirmed.
U.S. and Korean Churches, Ecumenical Agencies Work Together for Peace, Justice
Regular visits by U.S. denominational and ecumenical leaders to the DPRK since 1985 and return visits by church leaders from both North and South Korea provide an indication of their significant ecumenical commitment to advocacy for peace and justice on the Korean peninsula.
Building on this longstanding and ongoing engagement with partners in North and South Korea, Church World Service, the National Council of Churches (U.S.) and member churches are undertaking a new effort to address the current political impasse and the acute humanitarian needs.
CWS and the NCC have called for an urgent meeting of their member communions, to take place April 11 in Chicago, with reference to the burgeoning crisis on the Korean peninsula. They will seek a common advocacy strategy on U.S. policy toward the Korean peninsula, including the new doctrine of preemptory strikes; lay plans for consultations in the U.S. and Korea with Korean partners, and address the continuing humanitarian needs in North Korea.
The effort is "both a reflection of ecumenical leadership meeting to find ways to lower tensions and to stave off the potential of a greater humanitarian crisis," the Rev. McCullough said.
By Albert H. Lee