IWF Hong Kong member and 2019 WWMD honoree Katharina Zellweger (in black) poses with female cataract patients in North Korea.
For this edition of In the Lead, we are delighted to feature one of the extraordinary Women Who Make a Difference honorees who will be celebrated at our International Hall of Fame Awards Gala in Toronto on November 15. IWF Hong Kong member Katharina Zellweger manages KorAid Limited, a Hong Kong-based NGO she established in 2015 that serves children in institutions and the disabled in North Korea and China.
Katharina has 30-plus years of experience as a senior aid manager in Hong Kong, China and North Korea. She is an expert in humanitarian and security issues on the Korean peninsula. We spoke with Katharina on U.N. International Day of Peace (September 21) about why she chose to focus on North Korea, an often-misunderstood country.
You have said that you always wanted to work with people “at the fringe.” What drew you to working with these groups and in humanitarian aid?
At a young age, I had already decided that I wanted to work beyond the borders of my country, Switzerland. I wanted to experience different cultures, be able to serve, to share. But more than that, to face challenges and help solve problems. Being an aid worker has given me a unique opportunity to be able to do all of this. Early in my career, the Caritas motto – “a world in which one person suffers less is a better world” – influenced me greatly. This belief has helped me not to give up, even when situations seem to be unsurmountable.
Why did you decide to focus your work on North Korea? With so many communities in need of assistance, what attracted you to this part of the world?
The situation in North Korea – a protracted, entrenched humanitarian situation – is largely forgotten or overlooked by the rest of the world. The United Nations estimates that 11 million ordinary men, women and children lack sufficient nutritious food, clean drinking water or access to basic services like health and sanitation. But because there is only a small international aid community active in North Korea (just a few UN agencies and a few European non-governmental organizations), I felt it would be worthwhile for me to stay involved and use the expertise and knowledge I gained while working for Caritas and the Swiss government (in the latter, five years in Pyongyang where I observed and assessed in a very direct way) and to continue helping the people there. Today, the new foundation I established, KorAid, primarily supports people with disabilities and children in institutions – for they, too, deserve a better life.
You have lived and worked in a country about which there is very little knowledge. What do you wish the Western world knew about North Korea and its people?
If one says, “North Korea,” almost everybody thinks of the country’s nuclear program, the recent Singapore and Hanoi summits between U.S. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and images of starving children. Forgotten are the 24 million ordinary individuals who only happen to have been born there and who are struggling day by day just to get by. Those are the people I care about.
Tell us about a development project you are most proud of. What do you think is important for such a project to succeed?
Having worked in humanitarian aid and development cooperation for some 40 years, it is hard to choose only one project, so let me introduce two present engagements in North Korea:
- We are supporting annually about 8,000 cataract operations by importing lenses, special eye drops and some basic equipment. After having the procedure, the beneficiaries – farmers, laborer, office workers, homemakers and retirees – will be able to return to work, benefitting their families and society.
- We are also assisting with training programs for staff at care institutions, as well as parents and caregivers, to help special needs children. For example, in June we hosted four days of workshops covering mostly autism and ADHD – both new fields for North Korea. But of course, much more needs to be done.
A small amount of money can go a long way. A donation of less than USD $10 to KorAid Limited can help a recipient of lenses get his or her eyesight back. In the affluent West, we spend that much on coffee and a croissant.
You have been a member of IWF for over 15 years. What attracted you to our membership and how has your IWF experience influenced your professional journey?
I treasure the membership at IWF Hong Kong. We are some 60 members from different cultures, backgrounds and careers, and we meet regularly to share information, knowledge and ideas, and learn from each other. I am committed to women supporting each other, building up a solid network of women leaders in the world, and becoming a part of solutions worldwide. Whenever I travel, which is a great deal through my work, it is easy to find another IWF forum and link up with members there, exchange ideas and develop friendships.