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Catholic lay group invited to North Korea

ROME (UCAN): The Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay organisation devoted to promoting peace in the world, was invited to visit Pyongyang in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to deliver 25 tonnes of food aid.

Mauro Garofalo, who made the trip on behalf of the community between May 24 and 30 to oversee the distribution of the food, described it as rare for the reclusive government of North Korea to approach a Catholic group for assistance.

Involvement in international aid and cooperative initiatives is not new to the Community of Sant’Egidio. Nicknamed Trastevere’s United Nations, after the Rome neighbourhood where it has its headquarters, one of its main accomplishments was brokering the 1992 peace agreement that put an end to the civil war in Mozambique.

The 25-tonne food package included rice, beans, sugar and oil. It was delivered to two institutions for elderly people and one orphanage in a district around 100 kilometres south of Pyongyang.

The food aid programme was set up at the request of the former ambassador to Rome from the hermit state, Han Tae-Song.

“(North) Korean diplomats had often visited Sant’Egidio asking for help for their distressed population,” Garofalo said on his return.

He described the population as suffering from drought and bad harvests, while still reeling from the devastating floods of two years ago.

Garofalo, who was closely monitored throughout his stay, said he was allowed to oversee the arrival and effective distribution of the aid shipments.

He said that he did have meetings with aid officials and with representatives from the Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang and described them as cordial.

“We have been asked to intensify our efforts to aid the population,” he reported, explaining that a second mission is being planned and should leave before the end of the year.

Garofalo said, “North Korea’s population lacks almost everything: first of all more and more nutritive food. But we could also see that they need detergents, disinfectants, drugs and medical devices.”

He added, “Political considerations notwithstanding, the country’s productive system has been severely put to the test by the international embargo, especially as a consequence of fuel scarcity.”

In an official letter, the Central Committee of the Korean Federation for the Care of the Aged thanked Sant’Egidio’s for what it called its lofty humanitarian aid, adding that further active and continuous aid is expected.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation warned last week that North Korea faces severe food insecurity because of the worst drought in a century.

It further urged the international community to work with local representatives to supply aid to the country.

Caritas Korea, which is based in Seoul, has organised food shipments and other limited aid programmes to North Korea in the past.

But South Korea suspended all shipments of food aid in response to the north’s testing of a long-range missile, which was launched in early April but crashed shortly after lift-off. Nevertheless, some overtures have been successful.

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