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Humanitarian Aid to Ease Winter Famine in N. Korea

In November this year, Master Cheng Yen directed a relief team from Taiwan's Tzu Chi Foundation to North Korea to distribute aid items to 140,000 households in four counties in North Korea. This is the Foundation's largest ever international relief effort in decades. One of the aid recipients, Mdm Han Sung Yuk from Pyongwon County, said to Tzu Chi volunteers: "We are very happy to see you here at the distribution site, and receive your letters of concern. We feel as though we have been relieved of our hunger. Thank you very much."


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The sincerity and respect shown by the Tzu Chi volunteers during the aid distribution helped to overcome the language barrier between themselves and the North Korean villagers.(Photo by Gu Chi-hung)

Humanitarian aid for a disaster-stricken nation

Between July and August 2011, North Korea was struck by both tropical storm and floods, resulting in poor rice harvests and left hundreds of thousands of North Koreans facing famine. Member of the North Korean Committee for Promotion of International Trade, Kim Jung Ki travelled to Taiwan personally to meet with Tzu Chi's founder Master Cheng Yen and requested for Tzu Chi's assistance to address the food shortage in North Korea.

Under the direction of Master Cheng Yen, survey teams visited North Korea twice in August and October to determine the extent of the crisis. In November, an aid relief team was sent to North Korea to distribute rice, cooking oil and infant formula to 140,000 households, benefiting some 440,000 famine-stricken North Koreans. This is Tzu Chi's largest international aid distribution effort in decades with over 13,000 tons of rice, cooking oil, infant formula and other relief supplies distributed. The number of beneficiaries is also unprecedented.

North Korea had actually experienced a similar food shortage crisis 14 years ago. At that time, the Taiwan Tzu Chi Foundation and the North Korean Committee for Promotion of International Trade cooperated and overcame various difficulties to conduct nine aid relief distribution efforts in North Korea.

This time round, Master Cheng Yen, abiding by the Buddhist teachings of Compassion for All, dispatched 41 volunteers from Taiwan to North Korea for a nine-day relief mission between 11 and 19 November. The volunteers withstood harsh winter conditions to set up 27 aid distribution sites in four outlying counties – Koksan and Rinsan Counties in North Hwanghae Province and Pyongwon and Taedong Counties in South Pyongan Province.

Owing to unique political circumstances, international NGOs are normally allowed to only hand over their relief supplies at the port when delivering aid relief to North Korea. As Tzu Chi had demonstrated sincerity and respect and also shown itself to have no ulterior motives during previous aid distribution efforts in North Korea, government authorities made an exception to permit Tzu Chi volunteers to enter the villages and directly hand over the aid supplies to the villagers. The volunteers were also allowed to visit the homes of the aid recipients to express their care and concern. This was a significant gesture on the part of the North Korean government and bears historical significance for both North Korea as well as Tzu Chi.

The weather conditions was relatively better compared to the heavy snow conditions experienced during Tzu Chi's last aid distribution in the country over a decade ago. Daytime temperatures stood at just four to five degrees Celsius and the sun was visible through the day. As such, the distribution effort proceeded smoothly and it was also easier for the recipients to carry the items home.

The volunteers abided strictly to the teachings of Master Cheng Yen throughout, consuming only vegetarian instant rice and noodles made by Tzu Chi, and politely declined to accept any kind of hospitality or gifts from the local government. This greatly impressed the accompanying officials, who praised members of the relief team as being highly-disciplined, efficient and sincere.

Timely aid for famine-stricken villagers

Koksan County, the poorest county in the area, is located in a windy valley surrounded by high hills. Although the area is rich in mineral deposits, the government does not have enough money to fund mining activities. The area suffers from barren soil and water shortage. Residents often have to travel six kilometres just to fetch water for use.

To the volunteers' surprise, the local residents have got the valley's damaged bridge repaired and levelled the aid distribution site in preparation for the aid distribution. When they arrived on site, the residents were already waiting in anticipation at the field in the county secondary school.

Seeing how the Taiwanese volunteers travelled all the way to aid his residents, the county chief who was present throughout the distribution process said emotionally, "We cannot thank you enough! You have provided timely aid during our time of need."

The chief added that the United Nations had previously donated aid supplies to the county five years ago but the amount of aid distributed by Tzu Chi was far larger.

"I wish I could meet and kneel down in front of your Master to thank her for helping us survive," the chief said gratefully.

The relief team paid special attention to express the concern of Master Cheng Yen during interaction with the villagers. An elderly woman later told one of the team members, Wang Shou-rong via an interpreter, "You care for me as though I am your mother." In reply, Brother Wang said, "That's because our Master taught us to respect all elders like our own parents. She taught us to treat every one in the world as our family."

When members of the relief team visited the homes of the villagers, they saw the villagers happily opening up the rice sacks to cook rice. The parboiled rice* that was distributed is highly nutritious; when cooked, the rice produces between 30 to 50 percent more cooked rice than normal rice. As there is some difference between the cooking methods for normal and parboiled rice, Brother Wang Fu-chuan helped some of the villagers wash the parboiled rice and reminded them to soak it in warm water for an hour before cooking.

Brother Wang was very touched to see some villagers sharing their aid supplies with their neighbours. "They may be poor, but they are willing to help one another," he said.

Hearts bound by laughter

Laughter is definitely the world's universal language.

Just by learning two simple Korean phrases of "Thank You" and "Bless You", the Tzu Chi volunteers were able to overcome the language barrier between themselves and the aid recipients. This demonstrated how Love is not limited by language or borders. CEO of Tzu Chi Singapore, Brother David Liu, was part of the relief team and has participated in many international relief missions. Although Brother Liu normally sports a serious demeanour, he performed magic tricks to entertain and lighten the villagers' spirit during the mission. Brother Liu's humorous antics had the villagers laughing out loud and created a joyful atmosphere filled with cackles at the distribution site.

Brother Liu also led the relief team to learn the Korean folk songs 'Arirang' and 'Glad to See You' from the accompanying interpreters. Learning these folk songs provided the opportunity for the relief team to further interact and gel with the aid recipients and the interpreters. Another Taiwanese volunteer Chui Mei-hsien also established good rapport with many of the villagers as she spoke fluent Korean. Sister Chui also encouraged the musically-inclined villagers to go on stage and dance to the tune of the Tzu Chi song 'Love and Care for All'.

"The North Koreans have a strong sense of national pride and resilient community spirit. The women here are similarly highly determined and have strong willpower," commented Brother Liu. At the aid distribution site, many female aid recipients were seen to be carrying up to 45 kilograms of rice on top of their heads, politely declining assistance offered by the Tzu Chi volunteers to help them with the load. It was only after several repeated offers that they finally accepted the volunteers’ assistance.

But while North Koreans may appear tough and resilient, they are in fact an emotional and passionate community. During the interactions, they showed themselves to be passionate and optimistic – although they may be lacking in terms of material goods, they exhibited positive traits such as diligence and perseverance, and also adopted the positive attitude of being contended and happy with one's life. This is useful food for thought for the "unhappy rich" that are living in many other affluent countries.

Learning humility while giving

At the beginning of the aid distribution, the North Korean interpreters appeared rather indifferent towards the cause but they gradually warmed up to the effort as the days passed, with some helping the aid recipients to carry their supplies.

In the past, these interpreters would never bow to their fellow citizens. After spending a few days with the Tzu Chi volunteers, they began to appreciate and adopt Tzu Chi's etiquette and no longer felt uneasy about bowing humbly when rendering assistance to their people. Six of the interpreters even signed up to join Tzu Chi family as donating members!

At the end of the relief operation, almost all of the accompanying North Korean officials and interpreters openly expressed appreciation for Tzu Chi's timely humanitarian aid to their country and were full of praise for the sincerity and selfless attitude shown by its volunteers.

"My heart is now with Tzu Chi," said interpreter Kang Sung Jin, who learned the Tzu Chi way of always greeting people with a smile.

"'To derive happiness from hard work is part of the Tzu Chi spirit, which is how I feel now too," shared volunteer interpreter Lee Young Ju.

"The villagers asked me to convey their appreciation for your sincere concern and for treating them like family. They will be forever grateful," said Ms Yim from the North Korean Committee for Promotion of International Trade.

At each and every distribution site, the villagers were always reluctant to part with the Tzu Chi volunteers when it was time for the volunteers to leave. This demonstrated how the bonds of Love have been formed between the volunteers and the North Koreans in spite of the barriers of language, space or time...

*Parboiled rice is rice that has been partially boiled in their husks. The three basic steps of parboiling are soaking, steaming and drying. These steps also make rice easier to process by hand, thereby increasing its nutritional profile (other than its Vitamin B content which is denatured) and change its texture.

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41 volunteers from Taiwan arrived amidst harsh winter conditions in North Korea to distribute aid items to 140,000 households in the country's four outlying counties. (Photo by Gu Chi-hung)

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Tzu Chi distributed a record amount of aid items during this aid distribution in North Korea. (Photo by Lee Wei-huang)

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Thousands of villagers gathered at the aid distribution site in the early morning despite the chilly winter cold. (Photo by Gu Chi-hung)

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Taiwanese volunteer Chui Mei-hsien (holding green folder) conveying the greetings and well-wishes of Master Cheng Yen to the villagers in fluent Korean. (Photo by Gu Chi-hung)

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The villagers were touched after listening to the earnest letter of Master Cheng Yen. (Photo by Gu Chi-hung)

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The villagers reading the translated letters of well-wishes from Master Cheng Yen. (Photo by Gu Chi-hung)

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An elderly woman broke down in tears after being touched by the concern expressed in Master Cheng Yen's letter. (Photo by Gu Chi-hung)

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CEO of Tzu Chi Singapore, Brother David Liu, performed magic tricks to entertain and spread joy to the villagers. (Photo by Gu Chi-hung)

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Brother Wang Shou-rong (right) has been involved in many international aid relief missions. He epitomizes the positive spirit of making the most of the present. (Photo by Gu Chi-hung)

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Members of the relief team visiting the homes of the villagers. Brother Wang Fu-chuan is seen here helping an elderly woman to wash and soak her rice before cooking. (Photo by Gu Chi-hung)

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Mdm Han Jung Chung, 69, returning home in her neighbour’s oxcart after collecting the aid relief items. (Photo by Gu Chi-hung)


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