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Kathi Zellweger TalkAsia Interview Transcript


Airdate: April 30th, 2005

LH: Lorraine Hahn
KZ: Kathi Zellweger

Block A

LH: Hello and welcome to TalkAsia. To many, North Korea remains an enigma, a politically isolated country of 22 million people, still struggling to cope with the decade-long economic crisis.

We have seen pictures, images of extreme hunger, disease and poverty that are almost at odds with the disturbing reports of weapons of mass destruction. So what is the social reality in North Korea?

My guest this week is Kathi Zellweger, head of the Caritas' Democratic People's Republic of North Korea program. Since 1995 she has visited North Korea nearly 50 times and has had access to parts of the country rarely seen by foreigners.

Kathi welcome to the program, thank you very much for coming in. I wanted to ask you about your most recent trip to North Korea, what was the situation like there?

KZ: I left Hong Kong end of February, went into North Korea on the first of March, and was amazed that we still had winter. Especially when we traveled to the East coast of the country in Hamhung, we woke up one morning and the snow was knee deep. And of course that is then very difficult, also very difficult for us to travel to the more remote parts of the country.

LH: Right. We hear stories, pretty disturbing stories a lot of times, you know people...the hunger is so bad that people want to eat grass and you know they'll eat meat that's bad, etc., things like that. Are these...is this really the situation in North Korea? Is it that bad?

KZ: The worst time was certainly '95-97 or '98. The situation in terms of food has improved a bit. But not for everybody because it is not just the question of having food, it's also a question of getting access to food and you now see the difference between areas like the Northeast is still very poor, and food is still a big problem (LH: When you say poor, how poor?) Well if you visit families and they tell you they eat meat twice a year, eggs perhaps once a month, and the rest is usually cereals, rice, more often maize, which people are also not terribly keen on, that's what I mean.

LH: Right. You have said that there is more than one reality in North Korea. What do you mean by that?

KZ: Well when I started going to North Korea ten years ago, I felt the misery must spread out very very evenly across the whole country. And now you all of a sudden see that this is no longer the case, that the gaps are widening, that you see now more clearly the haves and the have-nots.

LH: And is that disturbing, is that going to be a problem?

KZ: On one hand yes, on the other hand it's also a sign that things are changing, because this is also due to those first economic reforms, which North Korea started in July 2002.

LH: So the impact, we're actually seeing the impact of reforms right now. Are they effect you think, in your opinion?

KZ: I think they are, they definitely are, you can see that. But of course they are not easy and for many people it means even a harder struggle, a struggle for survival. Where others now, especially those that have access to foreign currency can lead a much better life, and that's mostly people in Pyongyang I would say.

LH: Kathy, give me an example when you say that for some the struggle is worse. What do you mean from let's say, when the reforms first started to now?

KZ: It's difficult for those who live in cities, I would say the farmers are better off because they have access to land, they have a little bit of garden, they can plant their own things. But if you live in an apartment block in a major city, no access to land, no kitchen garden, maybe a rabbit on your balcony, that's it. Then you really depend on the salary you perhaps get from your factory if your factory has work to do. Or you depend on relatives who may still be farmers. (LH: If not?) If not, it's tough. Then you have those, at present 250 gram rations of cereals a day. That's per person per day and that's about maybe 800 calories; and the rest you have to fend for yourselves.

LH: What about obstacles to these reforms?

KZ: Oh there are many. I mean one for example is the high inflation rate; it's spiraling out of control so there are almost parallel economies now. Other obstacles are that North Korea has very little opportunities to develop because there are sanctions in place, the political situation is extremely difficult and tense, so hardly any foreign investors come in and look at opportunities there.

LH: Do they realize that their country is transitioning? Do the people of North Korea realize that?

KZ: I would think for the average North Korean who lives somewhere out in the country, the first issue is to survive. They do not think about political situation, about changes. The question in the morning is: Where do I get the food from? Can my kids go to school? If somebody is ill will they get medical help? That's daily life. So I would say for the majority of the people it's a very ordinary life and a tough one too.

LH: You have...in all the times that you've been there, you've obviously spoken to a number of people. Do they speak with you freely about their lives?

KZ: Well, freely, that's a different issue because you have to see it in a situation where people have never met foreigners. So very often I'm the first foreigner to talk to so of course they (LH: They're a little bit) are a bit hesitant. It always takes time to build up a relationship, a rapport with the people. But quite often when you do family visits, after awhile they open up and they tell you about the problems and the difficulties.

LH: And what do some of these people tell you?

KZ: Well like you know, that their storeroom is almost empty, that the food is very tight, that generally they try to do their best but that is difficult. North Koreans are very proud people so it's very hard for them to admit the difficulties and the poverty is not so obvious, it's hidden behind closed doors in apartment blocks. So it's very different to let's say, an Africa country.

LH: Right. Do they...are they inquisitive about what is outside North Korea?

KZ: I always give the people that opportunity and say now I've asked a lot of questions now you can ask me questions. But generally people are quite reluctant to do so and if they are asking questions then it's of course, where my home country is, my family situation, so it's more personal questions than about the world in general.

LH: Did you notice a softening up of let's say on the political front when you're in North Korea?

KZ: We as aid agencies hardly notice that. I think our North Korean counterparts, they know we are there to help people in need and that politics is not our arena. Also I have to say when it comes to North Korea unfortunately humanitarian aid and politics are often linked.

LH: Yes I understand that. Kathi we're going to take a very very short break. When we come back, I'll be talking to Kathi about the nuclear issue, and what the international community needs to do better to engage North Korea. Stay with us.

Block B

LH: Welcome back you're watching TalkAsia, Kathi Zellweger is my guest. Kathi I want to ask you about International aid now and whether enough is actually getting through to North Korea.

KZ: Enough is a good word, we are far from enough and I would say in recent years we have focused mainly on food aid, but there are other sectors which we need to look at. For example, health, or education - these are both crucial if you want to provide for a decent life.

LH: What is wrong with the health system or even the education system?

KZ: In the health system there hardly any drugs, people now produce again much more traditional Korean drugs, which is fine but they would also need more Western drugs. (LH: You mean like homeopathic herbal type mixtures) Right herbal like Chinese medicine, very much like that. And then the hospital equipment is just so outdated. It sometimes feels like they should be in a museum and not in a hospital, and it's very hard for the staff to work under such difficult conditions. So that's one area and then of course on my recent trip I had the opportunity to visit a couple of schools. And it was sad to see how little the schools have, how little the teachers have to teach, in terms of books or educational equipment, and how little the kids have when it comes to simple notebooks or pencils. Together with the World Food Program and UNICEF and we as Caritas also provide occasionally some inputs for high energy biscuits, and these are provided to school kids. And the headmaster of one school said to me, "Oh, whenever the news arrives that the biscuits are here, all our children are here too." So that shows the impact the biscuits have, (LH: Food) because it attracts the children to go back to school. So I am somewhat concerned that the education level is slipping, and up to now that has been something North Korea has been very proud of and had reasons to be proud of because I have yet to meet a North Korean who cannot read and write. (LH: Really?) And that's an achievement.

LH: That's very very interesting. What about the distribution of the aid. Is that satisfactory? Is it getting to where it should be going?

KZ: There's just been another nutritional survey done last fall and the results came out actually during the time I was there. And if you compare those two nutritional surveys, the results are better. And that shows that aid must be getting through because otherwise the children would not show an improvement. But let me say that we have only moved from 'very high' to 'high' levels of malnutrition, so the situation is not good.

LH: The nuclear issue has been hitting the headlines recently and for some time now. How serious is that a threat to the social network in North Korea?

KZ: Again it is so difficult to tell if ordinary people really know much about it. How much they have access to even domestic news, let alone international news. So it's very hard to connect the two, ordinary daily life and nuclear issues. Do they go together? I really don't know.

LH: What if sanctions are slapped on North Korea. What will the impact be then?

KZ: You know one of the North Korean official has said to me, "Look Kathi we have been used to lead a hard life for many many years, we just tighten the belt further." (LH: Can they tighten the belt further?) That is exactly my question too. But we have been doing a lot of belt tightening in North Korea, and people have had a very difficult life and are also very used to a difficult life.

LH: Share with me, explain to me Kathi, what is difficult, what is hard?

KZ: Hard is for example, an empty stomach and no heating in your house. (LH: Even in the midst of winter?) In the midst of winter. For example some years ago I went home with a child that was attending a kindergarten, and I went just along with her to her family house. We had to walk up four flights of stairs in an old apartment building and there was even ice inside the building, and in their small apartment there was only one little room that had the floor heating, the traditional Korean heating. So that's one big difficult, or even now I was struck when I traveled how many buildings have plastic sheeting instead of windows.

LH: How different is it, in Pyongyang versus some of the isolated places you have seen?

KZ: I think Pyongyang, being the capital, is of course the showcase to the rest of the world. But even in Pyongyang not everything is up to our standards, or far from our standards I would say.

LH: And compared to let's say the villages or the towns?

KZ: One big issue is of course that very little money has gone into infrastructure, so everything is dilapidated. The buildings are old, but I have to say they are trying hard to maintain at the level they can maintain it. And the other thing which always strikes me is how clean it is when we stay in guest houses. They are old, I mean facilities are far from modern, but they are spotless clean.

LH: Wow. Do the North Koreans talk to you about reunification with family members in the South?

KZ: Officials would of course mention unification and I think that is a strong desire on both sides of the divided Korean peninsula. The question is when and how.

LH: Do they talk to you about it; do they talk to you about missing their family members and things?

KZ: More in the South than in the North.

LH: Oh that's interesting. Kathi we're going to take another very very short break. When TalkAsia returns, I'll be talking to Kathi Zellweger about a life devoted to humanitarian work, and what it takes to stay emotionally focused.

Block C

LH: You're watching TalkAsia, and with me today is Kathi Zellweger, the head of the Caritas program on North Korea. Kathi, Caritas Hong Kong is part of Caritas Internacionalis correct?

KZ: That's right, yes.

LH: What else do you...what else does it do?

KZ: Well Caritas is a relief development and social service agency of the Catholic Church. And there are national Caritas organizations in 162 countries around the world. So it's one of the biggest networks and it's very grassroots, because basically in most countries you find a national Caritas organization.

LH: How different is it to let's say other NGOs?

KZ: I think hardly any other NGO I can think of would have this kind of network, and also the link to the local people. So for example during the tsunami disaster it was very often the Caritas people who were on the ground immediately, because they are local people, they know the situation, they know the needs. So very often we can act very very quickly.

LH: Right. Caritas has been involved in North Korea now for a decade. How did it earn the trust of the people and of government to get in there, and stay there?

KZ: I think well, ten years I never thought I would be working for the North Korean people for ten years. We started off and it started off simply because I was curious about North Korea and I met the first North Korean in Beijing in the early 90s and we kept in touch and I think they checked out what Caritas was.

KZ: And then we had the big flood disaster where the Swiss government was invited in, and I'm Swiss and so the government asked me to join that delegation. And I said, well if I do that and if the North Koreans are going to ask for Caritas' assistance too, I would stay a bit longer to make clear that I was wearing two hats, and that's exactly what happened. So I think it's building up trust, it's building up relationships over a long period of time. And this is something I have to learn in Asia.

LH: Right. I mean it's been a long long time I think, I was going to ask whether there was a special personal connection that you might have had to North Korea.

KZ: Not really but I think I attract challenges.

LH: What keeps you going? I mean it must be difficult for you to see what you have seen, and to keep on and keep going and keep believing in what you're doing.

KZ: Well at the end of the day you can start a stone rolling down the hill, some change, and I do think we can make a difference to people's lives.

LH: Is it frustrating? Have you ever thought, oh I'm going to pack it in and leave and go back to Switzerland maybe?

KZ: Not really, and if it is frustrating it's not necessarily because of North Korea, it's also the bureaucracy we have to go through and lots of other issues here and there.

KZ: Personally I do like the Korean people and I think that makes a big difference, when you work with people you like. And I do feel over the years I've managed to build up relationships, even some friendships, despite the fact that it is difficult and the people are quite guarded.

LH: Right. When you see pictures of refugees climbing walls to try and run away. How do you feel?

KZ: There I think one needs to look at the whole story. I feel more sad for those who have not been able to leave or those who are in desperate need of help. We hear lots of stories about defectors, refugees, illegal immigrants -- I don't know what to call them because again there are so many different facets to the stories we hear. I did have opportunities to speak to some defectors when I was in South Korea and that was very very interesting. And I also asked each one of them what does he or she think about providing aid to North Korea. And some had to think a little while and others were pretty quick in responding. But in general the response was, keep on doing it, it does help. Even if not everything reaches the right people, there is still a trickle down impact and it helps our people who are still there and that keeps me going too.

LH: What is the most fulfilling aspect for you about your work?

KZ: There are so many. But just to see a group of children smile again, children who did not smile when I started going to North Korea, that's very rewarding.

LH: Kathi thank you very very much for coming in and sharing that with us, appreciate it.

KZ: Thank you; it's been a pleasure to be here.

LH: You've been watching TalkAsia, I'm Lorraine Hahn. Let's talk again next week.


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