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Red Cross Wins Official Status in N. Korea - 2002-06-04

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Tuesday signed an agreement with North Korea that grants the humanitarian group legal status in the country. The Red Cross hopes its new status will allow it to reach more people in North Korea.

The Red Cross is now a legal entity in North Korea, a status few international organizations can claim. Only two others - the United Nation children's agency UNICEF and the World Food Program - have permission to operate in the closed country.

"Hopefully, it will help us to overcome some of the problems we are facing in obtaining basic data, in obtaining access to areas which we have no access to today, said Tomas Liew, who has headed Red Cross operations in North Korea for the past two years. He says the new agreement could enable the Red Cross to reach parts of the country that were once off limits to it.

Mr. Liew estimates that, right now, about 20-25 percent of North Koreans have no access to aid from international relief agencies. He says the country continues to face severe shortages of food and medicines.

"Our drugs are the only Western drugs they have available," he noted. "And that covers only approximately 50-60 percent of the actual need. The rest they have to cover by what they call Korean medicine - traditional herbal medicines. Traditional herbal medicines can be good for chronic diseases but not very good for acute diseases. So without Western drugs they are facing a lot of problems."

Mr. Liew says the mortality rate has dropped by 30 percent for North Koreans who have access to Western medicine.