Working under special conditions

Our first assignment in North Korea started back in 1997, when the country suffered from a major famine known as the ‘Ardous March’. In the following five years we implemented numerous projects: we supported several hospitals by providing medicines and technical equipment and distributed food and coal for heating to people in need.

Even back then, the work in the East Asian country was very complicated. Unfortunately, even our extensive experiences from other projects did not prove to be helpful – the rigid rules of the North Korean authorities gave no leeway to our team.

All our requests for better working conditions, which we made in 2002, came to nothing. And so, despite large parts of the population being in great need, we felt impelled to leave the country.

About nine years later, in early 2011, the North Korean embassy approached us again, asking Cap Anamur for emergency assistance. Our director Bernd Göken flew to the country on short notice to get an idea of the situation. His trip led him to the cities of Haeju, Sinwon, Jaeryong and Anju. He visited some orphanages where most children were in very poor health  – apathetic and severely malnourished. Some private homes and hospitals showed the same depressing situation. Therefore, Cap Anamur decided to provide emergency assisstance by an immediate delivery of 200 metric tons of rice. In August, we sent another 800 tons of rice, 200 tons of beans, as well as cooking oil and other foodstuffs. All distributions took place under the supervision of our German  employees to ensure that the essentials reach those in need.

At the same time, in numerous discussions a timeline was worked out to continue the cooperation for the next year: in 2012 the focus was on medical aid for the children’s hospital and the so-called ‘Clinic Number 1’ in Haeju. Both institutions have about 250 beds. Aid was delivered in a transport, including important medicines and technical devices.. Unlike in previous years, we were allowed to send medical staff to both hospitals for several months, so that a specialist in internal medicine and a pediatrician could work directly on the patients. During this time, our doctors trained the local colleagues and worked closely with them.

At the end of the year, another Cap Anamur employee visited North Korea to directly discuss plans for the upcoming year 2013. But all of a sudden, the conditions for a cooperation became difficult again, even the extension of our 30-day-visas was denied. As a result, our team had to leave for a three-week period to be able to be present for the delayed aid transport. Controlling the distribution was very important to us, and in this way we were able to re-enter the country and distribute the medicines and the medical equipment to the two hospitals personally.

Nevertheless this development was disappointing. So in January 2014 Bernd Göken went to North Korea again to resume the talking. The situation was devastating: almost all hospitals were closed in winter, as it was not possible to heat. With temperatures dropping below minus ten degrees, life in North Korea is very hard, because most people have no possibility to heat their home, only possess thin blankets and have hardly enough food. After gaining these impressions, it was all the more important to find a way for a better cooperation.

The authorities’ suggestion to only deliver the relief goods was never an option for us. Not only do we have a responsibility towards our donors, we also want to make sure that the help reaches those in need. At first, our North Korean dialog partners seemed to accept our conditions and, based on the good cooperation in 2012, it was agreed upon a new cooperation for 2014. In addition, a training program for surgeons,   with the support of our sustaining member Prof. Benno Ure from the Hannover Medical School, was arranged. For one of the orphanages, a pilot project for a solar-powered hot water system was launched. However during the visit of the first surgeon in May 2014, the cooperation fell through. Unfortunately, it was impossible to resolve whatever problem there was.

Our last visit so far was in October of last year – again to hold conversations and to repair a previously delivered X-ray installation that was now out of order. But unfortunately, despite all efforts, an agreement could not be reached: a continuation of our project in Haeju was rejected. In addition, we were not allowed to visit the sites of previous projects, conducted over the last years. The only way to continue our work in North Korea was to start a completely new project in a different region – but that seemed too uncertain to us. At least the X-ray installation could be put into operation after our repair.

For now we have decided to put our efforts on hold and wait for an accommodation of the North Korean side. But we have not given up hope for future cooperation – the people of North Korea need our help too much for that. It was at the end of March that North Korea spoke again of an arduous march that the people are facing – indicating great economic pressure, maybe similar to the situation in 1994, where a readiness to make sacrifices was demanded from the people by using the same term.