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North Korean policy shift worries Swiss

Two North Korean girls having lunch at a state kindergarten

(Keystone Archive)

Ulrich Stürzinger of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation tells swissinfo of his concerns about North Korea's demand to end all humanitarian aid.

The Swiss official with special responsibility for North Korea feels the phasing out of humanitarian aid is happening too quickly and may leave vulnerable groups exposed.

North Korea, with its population of 22 million, has relied on foreign assistance since natural disasters and mismanagement caused its economy to collapse in the mid-1990s.

The communist regime has now demanded that international donors halt emergency food shipments and provide development aid instead. The ban on humanitarian aid is set to come into force by the end of this year.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has had a presence in the capital Pyongyang since 1996. From 2000 the SDC made a progressive shift from food aid to training and capacity development and it is now mainly involved in agricultural consultancy.

swissinfo: Do you agree with North Korea's assessment of the situation?

Ulrich Stürzinger: What we are slightly concerned about is that this phasing out of humanitarian aid is happening too quickly. Agencies were told at the end of August that the aid had to stop by the end of the year. We think this switch should preferably be a gradual one.

I think we have a somewhat differentiated picture of the situation. We can't really verify that no more humanitarian aid is needed. It seems to be a fact that this year's agricultural production is pretty good and there is more substantial aid coming from South Korea than in previous years. So it is possible that food items are available in the necessary quantities.

I am less sure about medication, because an end to the distribution of medicines has also been demanded. I have some doubts whether this can be replaced by other sources.

Another aspect is a distribution problem. The agricultural population is quite well off in terms of food as they are near the production. Our concern would be the non-agricultural population and people living in social institutions, like children's homes, who are very dependent on food aid.

swissinfo: Some SFr500,000 ($390,000) of your SFr5 million annual budget is currently spent on humanitarian aid. Will that aid now be cut?

U.S.: One part will, another won't. About SFr300,000 was milk powder that was given every year, so this contribution simply will not be made anymore.

The other component was seed for use within agricultural programmes. I think this component can continue because what North Korea does not want anymore is the distribution of food.

swissinfo: How was Switzerland informed of North Korea's decision?

U.S.: Actually the North Korean side didn't inform us directly because our activities in North Korea are considered to be development activities rather than humanitarian aid. But our office in Pyongyang was very quickly informed by other foreign organisations present in the city.

Then we had contact in early September with the North Korean ambassador here in Switzerland when it was confirmed that this decision does not directly concern Switzerland and its presence in North Korea.

swissinfo: What are the SDC's plans for the future?

U.S.: I think Switzerland should maintain a presence in North Korea. The fact that the government declared development cooperation as its preferred way to cooperate should favour our programmes in the future.

swissinfo-interview: Clare O'Dea

Key facts

The Swiss presence in North Korea started in 1996 as a programme of humanitarian aid, mostly food aid. From 2000 onwards the SDC gradually shifted from food aid to training and capacity development.
Of the current annual budget of around SFr5 million, SFr500,000 is spent on humanitarian aid (milk powder and seeds). SFr300,000 of this will now be cut.

end of infobox

In brief

North Korea has demanded that international donors halt food and humanitarian aid by the end of 2005 and provide development aid instead.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) already spends most of its budget on development projects.

The SDC has three main programmes: agricultural training and consultancy; the processing of agricultural products; and capacity development such as training courses in project management and economic relations.

end of infobox


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