A Visit to the DPRK

Ireland established diplomatic relations with North Korea in January 2004 during the rapprochement between the RoK and DPRK under the Sunshine Policy.  Ireland’s main engagement with the DPRK is the provision of funding by Irish Aid: reviewing the programmes run by the World Food Programme and Irish NGO Concern there forms a key part of visits by the Embassy.  After meetings with DPRK officials, we have a chance to travel outside of Pyongyang.  Getting to Pyongyang is not easy: diplomats cannot cross the border at the DMZ so we have to fly to Beijing and then catch a plane to Pyongyang.  Support by Irish Aid continues this year (2013) with a direct contribution to the WFP of €250,000, in addition to funding to Concern and to Emergency Funds like the UN’s CERF which the WFP accesses.

Ambassador’s Message – DPRK Visit

25 May 2012

I thought you might be interested in my visit last week to the DPRK to which I am accredited as Ambassador.  My wife Mary accompanied me.   Pyongyang, the capital and showcase city, looked well in the May sunshine, manicured and spruced up with particular attention because of the 15th April centennial celebration of the birth of Kim Il-sung.  There were plenty of cars in evidence, a bustle about the streets adjacent to our hotel, mobile phones in use and fashionable accessories to be seen.

 We were particularly interested to get outside the city to see the countryside immediately to the north and to the south of the capital and we able to do so thanks to the World Food Programme (WFP) and our own NGO, Concern, which is operating EU programmes there.

 WFP

To reach the WFP project, we drove north from Pyongyang to Phyongsong city.  The fields were busy with people actively planting rice or tilling fields.  Despite intensive cultivation and the hard work of the people, however, the food gap remains around one million metric tons of cereals each year.

The WFP programme in Phyongsong city, the capital of South Pyongan Province (pop. 4 million) centers on creating a food mixture rich in essential micronutrients and proteins.  It targets the most vulnerable and is distributed to orphanages (baby homes, child centers, boarding schools), hospitals, nurseries, kindergartens.  The WFP operates in 12 of the 21 counties in South Pyongan Province (and some 114 countries overall in the DPRK).  Between April 2011 and May of this year, the WFP provided 1,531 metric tons of food aid to 43,904 beneficiaries in Phyongsong city, mainly to nurseries, pregnant/lactating mothers, kindergartens and primary schools.  Its milk, cereal, corn, soy and rice blends help prevent permanent physical and intellectual damage due to chronic malnutrition (the stunting rate is about 32% nationally).

Because of the relatively better harvest in 2011, the current Emergency Programme will probably be replaced by a Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation in July 2012, with somewhat reduced coverage from 3.5 million vulnerable recipients to in the region of 2.5 million people.

The WFP expressed its appreciation for Ireland’s contribution last year to its programme in the DPRK of $3.6m.  This included a direct contribution of $356,125 by Irish Aid that was used to procure 770 metric tons of wheat.  The WFP DPRK programme also received multilateral funding of $3,252,800 from Ireland that was used to purchase vegetable oil, sugar and dried skimmed milk, key ingredients in the blended foods.

 Our first stop was Phyongsong Paediatric Hospital.  Young patients there were being treated for water-borne gastric problems which are prevalent (the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF, de-worms all the children twice a year in the 118 counties they cover).  International agencies, notably the WHO and UNICEF, provide medicines for about 10m of the total population of 24m. 

 Our next stop was at an orphanage for toddlers, ranked along two long balconies in the courtyard wearing identical pink pyjamas and waving excitedly as we arrived (shouting the Korean equivalent of Daddy! Daddy!)  Joyful and curious, they were particularly excited to be shown their photos on our camera’s LCD screen.  They receive daily the enriched WFP food that ensures essential nutrients for the crucial first years of life.

Our final stop was at the Cereal Milk factory where WFP supplies are mixed and bagged for distribution in an operation that was clean, busy and currently well stocked.

The WFP is confident that monitoring arrangements are effective. The official with us said that they had come not encountered examples of diversion and believe that the system operates with admirable integrity. UN officials and NGO regularly made the point to us that the DPRK operates extremely efficiently administratively, with high levels of commitment to tasks at hand, done with honesty and lack of theft.

Concern

Where the WFP (and WHO and UNICEF) provide emergency and relief programmes, the EU focus since 2006 is on addressing the structural issues causing the food gap under its Food Security Thematic Programme, specifically its “Linking Relief, Rehabilitation and Development”.  The DPRK budget for 2011-2013 is €20m.  The Irish NGO Concern manages integrated food and sustainable agricultural programmes, irrigation infrastructure projects, crop rotations, soil erosion mitigation techniques on sloping agriculture, and green house horticulture for winter production. 

Accompanied by Concern staff including an Irish national, we travelled through the traditional breadbasket south of Pyongyang to Singye.  Richly coloured red clays, verdant hills and clear blue skies combined to produce a beautiful landscape, dotted with small hamlets untouched, it seemed, by time.  Timeless too was the sight of plentiful colourfully dressed workers in the fields, carts drawn by cattle and curious, watchful locals. 

Concern operates the EU programme in Singye and associated projects in farms in and around the District.  It is an integrated operation designed to provide locally manufactured nutritious food for children and effective water and sanitation systems to end the scourge of water-borne diseases.  Pasteurized soymilk, tofu and protein rich maze noodles are produced using Chinese machinery in an operation run by locals under the leadership of the redoubtable Deputy Chairman of the District Committee, and her elderly though indomitable assistant, the kind of strong Korean women we are all familiar with down in the South.

We visited a cooperative farm, located off-road and across a broad river, that has a goat herd of some 700 whose milk is pasteurised for distribution or made into yoghurt.  Cellars are in construction to store cheese.  The farm manager is pioneering and open to new ideas, we were told.  There is a major push on by the international agencies to promote conservation agriculture, an approach that avoids ploughing altogether and thereby preserving nutrients, limiting erosion and improving yields.  A field at this farm is the first experiment with this new technique.  (Brazil is the leader in conservation agriculture and the exporter of the best planting devices.)  If successful, it will relieve rural populations of the time and energy consumed ploughing.

Our Irish national guide is coming to the end of his five-year stint in the DPRK.  He is resolutely optimistic in character and paid tribute to the ordinary Koreans he worked with as extremely kind, hospitable, hardworking and honest.  Aside from those fond memories, he recalled the magnificent scenery amidst the spectacular mountains as one travelled north.

 It is a challenging working environment but the effectiveness of comprehensive national and local administration means that goals can be achieved in the DPRK that would simply be inconceivable in many other countries receiving international aid.  A WHO official told me, in astonishment, that the inoculation (using internationally donated supplies) of the whole population between the ages of 1 and 4 years of age was achieved in two weeks.  There is no doubt that the UN agencies, NGOs and EU Special Programmes are achieving their intended goals, and meeting real needs in terms of nutrition and health for vulnerable groups. 

Concern kindly hosted a small reception for us and we had the opportunity to meet a range of people working with UN agencies and NGOs in North Korea, as well as a number of diplomats.  I paid tribute to their work and the often trying conditions of life that they subject themselves to when working to alleviate suffering in the world.  I was proud to note that even though Ireland faced considerable economic and fiscal challenges, our Irish Aid programme continued to enjoy widespread and strong public support at home.  

Best wishes, 

Eamonn

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2 responses to “A Visit to the DPRK

  1. Pingback: Museum Pieces: Kim Jong-un, the Korean War, and the Shadow of Maoism « SINO-NK

  2. Pingback: Studying Sino-North Korean Borderland Violence in Divided Ireland | SinoMondiale

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