As a veteran aid worker, Wolfgang Gerstner was weary of a vicious circle of escalating tensions between South and North Korea after the latter was found to be responsible for the sinking of the warship Cheonan on March 26.
According to the German consultant working for international aid group Caritas Germany, North Korea’s bellicose acts have led those outside the country who have tried to help it to harden their attitudes.
This has resulted in a decrease of donations, causing children there to live without vaccinations for example.
Gerstner, 53, went on to say that children and ordinary people living in the impoverished North, whose living standards couldn’t be worse, suffer the unintended consequences of the regime-led provocations.
“It is difficult for people living outside North Korea to separate ordinary people living in the North from the regime,” Gerstner, who oversees Caritas’s humanitarian aid program to North Korea (the CI-DPRK program), said last Thursday in an interview with The Korea Times at a hotel in Seoul.
Caritas relies on donations from individual and corporate members to sustain their humanitarian aid to less developed nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The aid organization also receives funds from the German government and Catholic churches here in Korea for the vaccination campaign for North Korean children.
North Korea is one of the nations where the rate of child mortality is alarmingly high.
According to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 55 of every 1,000 children in North Korea die before they turn five.
Child mortality can be largely preventable if young children are vaccinated.
The North issuing a threat, however, is a stumbling block to the international effort to save children there.
When recipient governments make threats, it is natural for people living outside those nations to harden their view toward them, making donors or potential donors rethink their contribution.
“I don’t have the exact figure regarding the loss in donations after the provocation, but it certainly does have an effect on the amount,” Gerstner said.
“Escalating tensions make it difficult for aid workers like me to convince our donors to contribute to humanitarian assistance for the people there.”
The German aid worker sat down with the reporter days after wrapping up his recent visit to North Korea from June 8 to 12 this year for the regular vaccination program.
During the four-day field trip, Gerstner and August Stich, a medical advisor working with the Medical Mission Hospital Wuerzberg in Germany, visited the Sadong Tuberculosis Center, the new national laboratory at the Pyongyang Tuberculosis Hospital.
The two-man delegation also met with officials from the North Korean Ministry of Public Health and experts in medical institutes in Pyongyang and in the neighborhood of the North’s capital.
They made the June visit after about 500,000 North Korean children aged from seven to 16 years old were vaccinated in three rounds from February to April, thanks to the Caritas program.
Since March 2007 when he was first called upon to handle the CI-DPRK program, Gerstner has been to the North approximately 20 times for talks with his North Korean counterpart — the Ministry of Public Health.
His most recent trip came at a time when tension on the Korean Peninsula has shown little sign of subsiding after a multinational investigation team concluded last month that a North Korean torpedo was responsible for taking the lives of 46 sailors.
The North has denied it.
In an attempt to teach North Korea a lesson that any criminal acts will invite punishment, South Korea referred the Cheonan case to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) in early June, calling for retaliatory measures against the North for the unacceptable act.
North Korea has claiming it is “innocent” and further threatened to take “counter-measures” if the UNSC sides with the multinational team over the probe results and comes up with punitive measures against it.
The two Koreas’ engaging in a game of chicken in the wake of the sinking of the ship has led to international media headlines featuring the peninsula on the verge of a war.
A vicious circle
The security standoff has spillover effect on humanitarian assistance to the North.
Disappointed, individual and corporate donors have become skeptical about contributing money or goods for the improvement of living conditions in the North.
Lesley-Anne Knight, secretary general of Caritas, expressed her concern over the unintended consequences of rising tensions last Tuesday during a news conference held in Seoul.
“This tension, of course, makes it much more difficult for us as humanitarian actors to maintain a neutral and impartial interest at the international level for North Korea,” Knight said.
“When there is a bellicose act, when people start to feel concerned about conflict escalating, international attention and the sympathy perhaps of the international humanitarian community for the plights of the (North) Korean people tends to diminish, tends to wane.”
Knight went on to say that “that is the extreme concern for us.”
Caritas, which has spent a total of $33 million on humanitarian aid and development in North Korea since 1995, called for a continuation of assistance.
The reaction came weeks after the South Korean government’s halt of assistance to the North in retaliation for its torpedo attack on the ship.
“(Humanitarian assistance) is absolutely essential for us. The situation of the majority of the North Korean people is that most of them are struggling to get their daily basic needs. Most specifically, food and health,” Knight said.
‘N. Korean kids are brave’
In his previous visits to the North in March, Gerstner had opportunities of taking a closer look at the facilities of clinics, institutes, and primary and secondary schools, while monitoring the North’s implementation of Caritas’s vaccination programs.
“Compared with South Korean hospitals and their amenities, hospitals in the North are less modern. Doctors there have to rely more on traditional medicine as they don’t have necessary facilities and medicine,” he said.
He called North Korean children “very brave.”
“It happens in other countries that school age children cry when they wait for their turns in line for taking vaccination shots. But North Korean children never cried even when they took the shots,” he said.
Previously, Gerstner was involved in several emergency relief programs in Africa, Latin America and the former East Germany. He helped organize rehabilitation programs in the local community.
Gerstner said North Korean teachers and children were “friendly and open-minded” when meeting with him, although they never spoke.
He said the most difficult part when implementing the aid program to North Korea was access to information and communication.
“For planning, we need information and have to communicate with our counterpart. The ministry has no email account, making it more difficult for us to execute the program,” he said.