For Korean medical doctor Suwan Park, the period of two weeks he spent in Haiti in the aftermath of the massive 2010 earthquake was an unforgettable experience.
“His [the patient’s] amputated right leg was covered with blood and pus. His eyes were filled with terror as he clung to his father. When I carefully opened the wound, his bone became easily exposed. He had a hip fracture and clearly needed a secondary amputation. I thought of my own son whom I left behind in Korea.”
It wasn’t just from the point of view of a medical team member, that Korean involvement in Haiti was a moving encounter.
“For many Haitians, it was the first time they had met a Korean person and they were very impressed with their devotion to treating the casualties,” said Yoonhwan Lee, senior communication officer from the The Republic of Korea National Red Cross, who travelled to Haiti, shortly after the disaster to report on the Korean team in action.
“When I returned to Korea, one of the Haitian volunteers gave me a letter of thanks to take back to the Korean doctors.”
The deployment of a Red Cross medical team was just one of a series of missions, consolidating the National Society’s role as a significant presence in emergency response beyond the country’s borders.
Beginning with Iraq in 2003 and the Indian Ocean Tsunami the following year, Korean medics under the Red Cross emblem, have been increasingly active internationally.
It’s not just in terms of deployments, but also the support provided for major humanitarian crises. In November last year, in cooperation with UNICEF and the Community Chest of Korea, the Republic of Korea National Red Cross launched a nationwide campaign for the Horn of Africa, which raised some three million US dollars, now being used in Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia and Ethiopia.
A new memorandum of understanding signed in Seoul by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the Republic of Korea National Red Cross and the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has also underlined the Red Cross’s growing profile in development assistance. Its involvement has focused mainly, but not exclusively, on Asian countries.
The National Society has been supporting water and sanitation work in Nepal for several years. The Nepalese village where the most recent project is based, is high in the mountains of Dolakha District.
“The Wi-Fi works perfectly there, but there was no drinkable water,” says Heyjoon Chun from the organization’s international team, who conducted an assessment mission to the area last year.
Another water and sanitation project is planned soon to start in the Philippines, and other development projects include educating immigrants from Vietnam to Republic of Korea, supporting livelihoods of low-income victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam and arranging necessary medical operations for Chinese children with congenital heart disease.
The two pilot countries for implementation of projects under the new MoU are Vietnam and Bangladesh, where the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) is to support Red Cross work in the areas of disaster risk reduction and health.
The two KOICA-supported projects, will be worth nearly 2 million Swiss francs (US$2.1 million), and are expected to be just the start of a growing momentum towards cooperation among the IFRC, the National Society and the Korean government internationally.
The Republic of Korea’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) grew by more than 25 per cent in 2010, according to the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
National Society staff members say that there is a generally positive attitude among the public towards greater international engagement. In fact, it’s partly in response to public sentiment that it’s not just the organisation’s national headquarters which is involved, but provincial chapters are lining up to take their own initiatives in international assistance. The water and sanitation projects in Nepal and the Philippines, are for instance, supported by the chapters in South Korea’s capital Seoul, most populous province Gyeonggi and second-largest city Busan.
The signing of the agreement is certain to give their work a new source of support and momentum.
“Through this tripartite agreement that will utilize the ODA funded by the Korean public, it opens a door of opportunity for us to explore the growing capacity of our service for other National Societies and to improve the service they provide for their beneficiaries,” said Republic of Korea National Red Cross President Yu Jung Keun.