On 11 November, 40 Tzu Chi volunteers left Taiwan for an aid operation in North Korea that will last nine days and cover four prefectures. The relief team will distribute more than 13,000 tons of rice, 350,000 litres of cooking oil and 43 tons of infant formula to 143,000 famine-stricken families living in the North Hwanghae and South Pyongan provinces.
In May this year, the United Nations warned that there were at least six million North Koreans in urgent need of food aid, especially children, pregnant women, seniors and patients. The country was hit by a severe, extended winter last year which damaged its winter crops such as barley and wheat while this summer, heavy rains and a tropical storm left widespread damages in its main cereal producing regions. On top of that, three years of international sanctions have led to a reduction in food aid from foreign countries, adding to the country's already chronic food shortage.
This July, the Foundation received a request for help from the North Korean Council for the Promotion of International Trade, the organization which cooperated with its distributions a decade ago. Dharma Master Cheng Yen, founder of Tzu Chi, cannot bear to see the people suffer. Therefore, the foundation sent two inspection teams to North Korea in August and October and started to plan for relief operation.
It has been an enormous logistical challenge to deliver such a large amount of material to a country with an undeveloped infrastructure but team leader Luo Ming-xian was confident with the rapport Tzu Chi built with the local government in its previous aid distributions.
To ensure the smooth accomplishment of the mission, Master Cheng Yen addressed the relief team members in the Jing Si Hall in Taoyuan, close to the airport from which they were to depart. She said that she expected the volunteers to understand more about the medical needs in North Korea for "the inspection report showed the same lack of medicines and medical equipment as ten years ago."
Between January 1998 and March 2000, the Foundation sent aid to North Korea seven times; the items included rice, canned food, powdered milk, fertilizer, farming equipment and winter clothes. In the past, international humanitarian organizations were not allowed to enter the country to deliver relief items. Only a simple donation ceremony would be held at the port of entry. But on Tzu Chi's sixth relief mission, the government decided to respect its principle of direct aid and allowed 50 volunteers to go to the countryside and personally distribute rice to over 40,000 families. It was an unforgettable experience for the recipients and the volunteers.
In the 11 years since then, despite the distance, the concern of Tzu Chi for the North Koreans has never ceased. The volunteers believe that their warmth and the sincerity behind the operation will melt the bitterness of the North Korean winter.