The nonprofit Eugene Bell Foundation on Thursday called for the South Korean government to open inter-Korean overland routes for medical shipments to mitigate supply difficulties caused by international sanctions.
It has become “very hard” to send multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) medication and equipment from third countries to North Korea due to UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, program director Jinnie Hong told assembled media at a news conference in Seoul.
“It’s the most difficult to ship the medicines in South Korea in the past… But transport companies and enterprises who sell medicines and medical diagnostic equipment are being cautious,” she said. “We are facing the situation that it’s safer and more guaranteed when sending medicines from South Korea rather than from abroad.”
Expressing concerns over the possibility that sanctions concerns may prohibit NGOs from sending construction materials for hospital wards, Hong called China the “new risk.”
Stephen Linton, Chairman of Eugene Bell Foundation, urged Seoul’s Moon Jae-in administration to allow the NGO to supply medication through inter-Korean land routes.
“I hope they can set the diplomatic goal of opening up overland routes for humanitarian aid as having a discussion with North Korea,” he said.
Citing the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent difficulties in bringing supplies to the DPRK, Linton also asked the government to permit the NGO to “establish a base” in North Korea to avoid obstacles in importing medicines and minimise clearance fees.
The Eugene Bell chairman also said Pyongyang had asked the NGO to expand its treatment during a regular visit in November.
“It’s an opportunity for the South Korean society as North Korea requested the large-scale support – that NGO can’t provide – to the organ which is closely related to South Korea while being imposed by sanctions,” Linton said.
Choe Dong Chol, head of the national tuberculosis control plan at the DPRK Ministry of Public Health, reportedly sent an official letter to the Eugene Bell Foundation in November to make the request.
“Humanitarian cooperation has become more difficult and the purchase of materials related to tuberculosis treatment has become complicated recently,” a summary of the letter provided in a written statement reads.
Choe said that the “only way to prevent the transmission” of MDR-TB was to cure all patients, but that Pyongyang was “far from reaching this goal.”
The North Korean official also said the disease has been spreading despite “proactive efforts,” citing the “lack of drugs required for all patients” as a reason for the failure.
“The authorities were cynical when we first started treating multidrug-resistant tuberculosis 10 years ago upon the request of local medical teams,” Linton said. “It’s a really great opportunity given that the importance of the project is recognized by from the bottom to top-level officials.”
Hong told media that North Korean officials also said in the letter that they needed more supplies of medicine and that the sanctions imposed by the international community made support “very difficult.”
“This is a crisis for North Korea, but this could be a great opportunity either for the Eugene Bell or the South Korean society,” Hong said.
She said the Moon administration could provide the humanitarian aid to Pyongyang using connections developed by Eugene Bell after more than two decades in the country.
“We’d like to appeal to offer the humanitarian aid to North Korea via opening the door and channel if the South Korean has the willingness to do it.”
Despite the NGO not having made an official request to the Moon administration to provide it with humanitarian aid, NK News learned that there had been “under-the-table contact” between the two.
Director Hong told NK News that Pyongyang had requested that they treat 3000 North Korean patients with MDR-TB in the west of the country, despite being aware that budgetary constraints limited treatment to a maximum of 1000 patients.
“The reason why the Ministry of Public Health gave this letter is to appeal to the South Korean society through Eugene Bell,” Hong told NK News.
In its 2016 report, the WHO estimated there were 3054 patients suffering from MDR-TB in the country’s western regions of Pyongyang, Nampo, the provinces of North and South Pyongan, and North and South Hwanghae.
The Eugene Bell has worked in humanitarian aid in the DPRK since 1995, but this year marks its tenth anniversary of providing aid to North Koreans suffering from MDR-TB.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Eugene Bell Foundation
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