Children from a district outside Pyongyang, where Sant'Egidio last month delivered food aid to North Korea (Photo courtesy of Sant'Egidio)
A Catholic group from Rome was invited to North Korea last month to deliver 25 tonnes of food aid, in a rare move for the reclusive socialist republic that has no formal ties to the Vatican and to the Catholic Church. The group, the Community of Sant'Egidio, has been involved for decades in international aid and cooperation initiatives. Nicknamed “Trastevere's United Nations” after the Rome neighborhood where it is headquartered, one of its main accomplishments was brokering the 1992 peace agreement that put an end to Mozambique's civil war. Sant'Egidio representative Mauro Garofalo traveled to North Korea from May 24-30 to oversee the distribution of rice, beans, sugar and oil to two institutions for elderly people and one orphanage, in a district around 100 km south of Pyongyang. The food aid program was set up at the request of North Korea's former ambassador to Rome, Han Tae-Song. “[North] Korean diplomats had often visited Sant'Egidio asking for help for their distressed population,” Garofalo told ucanews after his return. The population is “suffering from drought and bad harvests,” while still reeling from devastating floods only two years ago. Garofalo, who was closely monitored throughout his stay like all visitors to North Korea, said he was allowed to oversee the arrival and effective distribution of the aid shipments. He also had “cordial meetings” with aid officials and with representatives from the Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang. “We have been asked to intensify our efforts to aid the population.” A second aid mission is being planned and should leave before year's end, he added. According to Garofalo, “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 said. “Political considerations notwithstanding, the country's productive system has been severely put to 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 “humanitarian lofty aid,” adding that further “active and continuous aid” was expected. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization warned last week that North Korea faced 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, based in Seoul, has organized food shipments and other limited aid programs 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.