North Korea is now asking for help to find long-term solutions to its food shortages. The head of the Roman Catholic Church's aid program in North Korea says much work is needed to prevent hunger, but there are promising signs. Kathi Zellweger, the head of the Caritas aid program in North Korea, says the food situation there has improved slightly over the past year. But there are concerns that the coming harvest might not be as good as hoped.
Ms. Zellweger just returned to her Hong Kong headquarters from nearly three weeks in North Korea, also known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. She has been going there for nearly a decade and says on this visit, there was a change in Pyongyang's aid request.
"It was also interesting that the DPRK government announced that they feel although there is still a need for humanitarian aid they would welcome in future more technical assistance and more development-oriented support," said Kathi Zellweger.
Among other things, such aid could help expand crop production and food processing.
Caritas, which is the Roman Catholic Church's aid agency, already has some development projects in North Korea. One teaches farmers to grow sweet potatoes and process them into noodles. A Caritas plant nursery grows trees to reforest hillsides stripped bare.
North Korea's economy nearly collapsed in the mid-1990s, after the former Soviet Union stopped sending it aid, and a series of natural disasters ruined crops. That prompted Pyongyang to seek international help to prevent widespread famine.
Ms. Zellweger says although hunger and poverty persist, there are signs of economic progress in the country. Many farmers are allowed to sell surplus crops, easing food shortages, and other economic reforms are beginning to take effect.
"Overall, I feel there's more energy there now because people for the first time have more freedom to do things," she said.
Although Ms. Zellweger says more aid is needed in North Korea, there are concerns about how much will be given. Some nations have reduced aid in the past few years because of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.
Ms. Zellweger says another problem is simply fatigue. After nearly a decade of giving food aid, some donors feel it is time to move on. She says the shift in Pyongyang's aid request will help because it signals that North Korea wants to solve its economic problems.