By Maude Froberg

It is harvest time in the village of Onjong-ri. The air is bitterly cool, and the stubble fields are frozen. The first snow has already fallen in this north-western part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Sin Yong Gum bends down and grabs a pair of dripping wet cabbages from a bowl of water. Then she quickly presses them down into a tall vessel of clay. She fills her right hand with salt and sprinkles it over the cabbage. Next to her stands her sister Sin Yong Bok who presses cabbage and salt in the same way.

Sin Yong Gum wipes away a curl with the back of her hand and explains:

“Now the cabbage has to rest for one day. Then we will rinse off the salt and bury the pot in the ground. It takes a month to get a really good taste.”

She is of course talking about kimchi, The Korean national dish: fermented spicy cabbage. A source of nutrition in a country where the margins are small. Over ten million people or 40 percent of the population are relying on humanitarian aid to cope. People are struggling to bring in the last harvest of cabbages and radishes before the snow sets in. Within the collective farms, rice and maize are divvied into rations and distributed, although there is less than expected. A heatwave this summer destroyed a third of the harvest, prompting the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to released 213,474 Swiss francs from its emergency funds and set up 20 water pumps. Yet the damage was done, it was pollination time.

In this village, access to clean water is another challenge. Among Sin Yong Gum and her neighbours, only a few can pump up some from their shallow wells. Therefore, people are forced to collect water from contaminated water sources that may cause gastrointestinal infections. And in the rural clinics, the medicine shelves are often left empty – deteriorating health is a fact.

Cultivating hope with vegetables and plants
The temperature on the sign above the door of the greenhouse reads 17.9 degrees Celsius. The air is filled with the smell of soil and livestock, namely pigs. Vegetable plants grow in straight lines and Pak Myong Sim from the Red Cross bends down, snaps a leaf on a twig and inspects a green-reddish tomato.

In these 500 square meters, the Red Cross has managed to build a microclimate where a variety of vegetables, among them tomatoes, cucumbers, chilis, peppers and mushrooms, are harvested all the year around. The heat is partially created by biogas from the faeces of the pigs.

The vegetables from these greenhouses are distributed to particularly vulnerable groups, such as pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, children under five years, elderly and in-patients. Some produce is also sold in markets to generate income for the workers.

“There are several reasons why people do not have enough food in DPRK,” says Åsa Sandberg from the Swedish Red Cross. “Only 17 percent of the land is arable. This is a mountainous country. Agriculture is carried out using traditional methods and is often lacking seed, manure and machinery.”

In addition to vegetable crops, the Red Cross has greenhouses to cultivate tree plants, such as larch seedlings, acacia and pine.

“Deforestation is a major problem throughout the country. Entire mountain slopes are bare. If there is heavy rain in connection with a typhoon, the soil will cave in and cause a landslide. Floods also sweep away nutrients and force people to grow whatever they can on mountain slopes that should instead be used to plant trees,” she says.

In the course of climate change, the number of disasters in DPRK has increased at a daunting rate. Between 2004 and 2016, over 6 million people were affected by droughts, floods, typhoons and landslides.

Red Cross picks up the fight
In one of the low white houses along the main street of Unsan county is the newly established Red Cross office. From here, the team leader Choe Nam Il heads the work to reduce disaster risks.

On the wall hangs a poster with photographs of employees surrounded by clouds. Unsan county means the county of clouds and mountains. Here, people have always lived close to nature. Yet nowadays the weather is not like it used to be. Choe Nam Il recalls how different it was during his childhood, some 40 years ago.

“At times it was cold, at times is was hot, but never as irregular as now. We suffer from landslides, forest fires, snow storms and floods. This summer, a substantial part of the harvest was destroyed due to the heatwave and vulnerability is of course increasing,” he says.

Now he devotes a large part of his life to mapping disaster risks and ensuring that community awareness of early warning systems and evacuation drills are up to date. The Red Cross volunteers are equally trained in first aid and epidemic control. Last winter, an influenza outbreak affected more than 178,000 people. Although safe and effective flu vaccinations have been available for more than 60 years, the people of the DPRK have not been able to benefit from these vaccines due to sanctions. The Red Cross volunteers went from community to community to share prevention messages and help people to protect themselves.

Keeping clinics warm
Today Choi Kum Byol has chosen a pale-pink baby grow for her daughter. It is slightly too big and the sleeves cover her small hands, but it will soon fit. She is already six months and grows fast. Choi Kum Byol releases her from the black carrier bag, greets the mid-wife and sits down at the table at the village clinic.

The room is warm. A major difference from earlier when doctors and nurses were struggling in zero-degrees temperature. The solution is a heating system with solar panels that the Red Cross has installed in several clinics. There is also hot water from the tap.

To come here to weigh and measure your child, and to get advice on breastfeeding and nutrition is an important part of the Red Cross work to improve mother and child health in DPRK. The so called MUAC screening – the measurement of the mid-upper arm circumference with a simple colour-coded tape – is used to measure stunting and undernutrition.

The DPR Korea Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey carried out in 2017 by the Central Bureau of Statistics saw a slight decrease in under-five infant mortality during the previous six years. Yet malnutrition as well as undernutrition for this vulnerable group continue to be of great concern.

The clinic has designated a special room for delivery, as mothers may risk serious complications while giving birth at home.

“Support to these clinics makes a difference,” says Åsa Sandberg. “Nonetheless, knowing that medical equipment such as stethoscopes to detect the foetus’ heart beats, scissors and midwife kits for a safe delivery are stuck in customs is a painful realization.”

Impact of sanctions
In the company of her colleagues, Margareta Wahlström, President of Swedish Red Cross, crosses the muddy road and walks up to a white house in the village of Jwa-ri. Here, the DRPK Red Cross assistance, with support of the IFRC, has been implemented for over a year. A dog on a leash barks feverishly but the tail between his legs reveals how scared he is. This is the home of Jong Song Hui and she cannot hide her joy when demonstrating the water system in her kitchen.

“This has changed my whole life”, she says, squatting to release water from the white plastic tube. “Previously, I was fetching up to 12 buckets a day from the common well some 200 meters further away. The water was anything but clean.”

Margareta Wahström is in no hurry. She listens, asks questions and looks around. As a former top UN diplomat and one of the world’s leading experts in disaster risk reduction, she worked hard to establish a framework –The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 – which made the world’s governments shoulder a greater responsibility for the safety of their citizens.

Regardless of this status, Margareta Wahlström acts the same, whether she meets with people in need, assisted by the Red Cross, or if she talks with the world’s leaders in the corridors of the UN headquarters in New York.

The first time she visited North Korea was 1995.

“Naturally the situation is different today,” she says. There have been improvements, although the humanitarian needs are enormous.”

“In order to make a difference, we must address people’s absolute needs as well as reduce their long-term vulnerability. This time, I have visited a village where the Red Cross where the Red Cross has integrated programmes in health, water and sanitation, disaster preparedness, risk reduction and greenhouse cultivation, and a village that will soon receive this support. The difference between them is the availability of resources.”

A significant obstacle to the humanitarian work of the DPRK Red Cross and the IFRC are the UN sanctions introduced in 2006 and followed by several resolutions in the Security Council.

“The delays due to sanctions are especially worrying as the overall humanitarian situation in DPRK calls for more assistance, not less. We understand that sanctions imposed on the country are not intended to restrict humanitarian activities, but the reality is that they are creating delays and severely impeding our capacity to bring in supplies and scale up our response. These delays have a serious impact on an already vulnerable population,” says Margareta Wahlström.

There have also been delays in replenishing the stock of essential non-food items that have been used for immediate response during the heatwave, cyclone, floods and landslides in preparation for any future crises.

“We are particularly concerned about recent tightening of the sanctions regime. As a result of these changes and the uncertainty they create, we are seeing essential supplies such as baby resuscitators and infant scales stuck in customs,” she says.

Of concern is the slowing-down in the processing of exemption requests.

“In past resolutions, there was a commitment to reply to these requests within two weeks. This no longer exists and it is not always clear when or if there will be a response despite the fact that we are complying with the procedures and existing guidelines.”

Despite the challenges, the DPRK Red Cross, IFRC and partners are continuing to explore ways to scale up assistance. The Red Cross is aware that the country faces a humanitarian crisis that requires a much stronger response if people are to cope with increasingly violent natural hazards in the long run and, right now, and cultivate hope in a desperately lean winter.