Thursday, November 23, 2006

SINGAPORE (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) — The international Red Cross signed a “historic” agreement with North Korea this week to help the impoverished country tackle the impact of famine and natural disaster.

The three-year agreement was signed by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies on the sidelines of a regional conference in Singapore that ended yesterday.

It is aimed at improving preparedness in the isolated communist nation and bolstering the North Korean Red Cross’s ability to help people vulnerable to disease, hunger and natural calamities.

The federation said it currently assists about 8.7 million people in five North Korean provinces. Under the agreement, projects such as water, sanitation and first aid will be given additional support in places such as Ryonpori, an hour’s drive north of the capital Pyongyang.

Simon Missiri, head of the federation’s Asia and Pacific department, said the agreement harmonized assistance being given by mostly European Red Cross societies to their North Korean counterpart.



The Swedish Red Cross, for example, supports water-sanitation projects, the British assist community disaster-preparedness programs, and the Dutch focus on distribution of drugs to hospitals and clinics.

“So what we did is that in order to harmonize our cooperation we negotiated an agreement where each member commits to support certain programs of the [North Korean] Red Cross,” Mr. Missiri said.

He said the main objective of the accord is to “support the vulnerable people” in the North and build up the capacity of the North’s own Red Cross.

While the situation there was not discussed during the four-day conference here, aid agencies have in the past said many North Koreans are reduced to eating roots because there is little else to live on.

A decade ago, famine killed at least one million people in North Korea, and the country is still reliant on massive international food aid.

After Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons test on Oct. 9, aid and rights groups said they feared the international community would cut back on donations.

At the Singapore meeting, North and South Korean delegates sang together, witnesses said.

It is thought to be one of the rare international meetings in which citizens from the two Koreas, which are still technically at war, let their hair down and allowed music to unify them if only for a fleeting occasion.

During the conference’s final dinner on Wednesday evening delegates from the two Koreas took to the stage and sang a “song of hope,” recalled Winston Choo, Singapore Red Cross chairman and host of the meeting.

“The two delegations stood up and stood side by side as Koreans … They went to the stage. (There) was a big applause,” he said. “In humanitarian work, we have one common aim, that is to help humanity.”

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