By Jane Lanhee Lee
Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES
SHANGHAI (Dow Jones)--While the World Food Program helps to feed North Korea's hungry, Rotary International's Shanghai branch is trying to do its part to address the country's shortage of fuel.
A scarcity of fuel for home heating and cooking has exacerbated the serious humanitarian situation in North Korea, which was hit by a series of famines in the late 1990s. The World Food Program estimates that 42% of North Korea's children suffer from chronic malnutrition, a legacy of those famines. Deforestation and a shortage of coal have meant that fuel for household use also is in short supply.
Responding to a request from a North Korean diplomat, Rotary's Shanghai branch recently presented his countrymen with an oven that uses the sun's rays to cook food - giving a more literal meaning to "sunshine" policy, the name South Korea uses to describe its engagement with the North.
In the 18 months that followed that initial request, relations between North Korea and the U.S. have deteriorated. President George W. Bush last year said the communist state was part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and Iran, while Pyongyang has threatened to resume its nuclear program, raising fears it may develop nuclear weapons.
Rotary's Shanghai club delivered the solar oven early in March, just days after North Korea had intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance plane.
"Of course we were nervous," said Randal Eastman, a Canadian who is heading the club's project to donate solar ovens to North Korea. "But in Pyongyang it was actually very peaceful."
Made up of expatriate business people working in Shanghai, the Rotary club raises money for community projects.
The idea of donating a $12,000 solar oven came from North Korea itself, Eastman said.
He was contacted out of the blue in July 2001 by Jong San-hung, a former North Korean diplomat at the United Nations Development Program.
"Dr. Jong had long been interested in solar ovens and came to us because of Rotary's involvement in donations of them in other countries," said Eastman.
Rotary International already had donated solar ovens to a number of developing countries in an effort to alleviate poverty and help preserve the environment.
"Made In China" Tag Dominates Shelves In Pyongyang
For the installation of the solar oven in North Korea, Eastman and several other members of Shanghai's Rotary club flew to Pyongyang.
Jong, who is now working for a research arm under North Korea's trade ministry and helped plan the trip, suggested that the recipient of the oven be the Pyongyang Orphanage, home to about 280 children.
"None of the children looked emaciated, but most of them had blotchy skin and runny noses," said Eastman.
He didn't see any signs of famine in North Korea, Eastman said. Foreigners are usually paired up with minders in the North and aren't free to travel independently.
Spring is usually the worst time of the year in the North, as grain from the previous year's harvest runs out and a new crop remains months away.
The Rotary club also responded to a request from the orphanage for televisions as well as refrigerators to store food and medicines, Eastman said.
Shopping around for four television sets and two refrigerators, Eastman got a glimpse of North Korea's recent steps toward economic liberalization.
"Prices varied a lot from store to store, and we had to figure out through our contacts how to get the best price," he said.
While shelves at local currency shops were practically empty, foreign currency stores remained well stocked.
Last year, North Korea's dictator Kim Jong-il eased price controls, raised salaries, and gave greater freedom to the management at state-owned companies.
Payments in hard currency in the North now supposedly are transacted in euros after it abandoned its official exchange rate with the U.S. dollar last year.
"But they took all currencies - renminbi, euros, dollars, Japanese yen, and often times change from the store would be a mixture of the currencies too," Eastman said.
The home appliances Eastman chose for the orphanage all carried "Made in China" tags, he said. In fact, most of the appliances on the shelves in Pyongyang were sourced from across the border, the Canadian said.
Eastman could be returning to North Korea. He said Shanghai's Rotary plans to donate two more solar ovens, one to a Pyongyang child nursery and another to a district hospital.
-By Jane Lanhee Lee
Dow Jones Newswires