President visits Korea to witness the development of a vital National Society

By Francis Markus, IFRC, in Seoul

The President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Tadateru Konoe, has used a visit to the Republic of Korea to highlight the role of the Korean Red Cross and call for stepped-up humanitarian cooperation with the government, as he met key ministers in Seoul.

“The Korean Red Cross offers many examples of best practice in the way it has expanded its services and adapted its role to meet the changing demands of Korean society," he said in a speech after receiving the National Society's highest award, the Mugunghwa Order.

He said that the Korean Red Cross had also mirrored its country's rapid economic advance, by stepping up its role as a provider of humanitarian assistance to those parts of the world where it is most needed – in Iraq, in the tsunami-hit countries of south-east Asia, on the African continent, and in Haiti.

During his two-day visit to Seoul – his first as IFRC President – Mr. Konoe paid courtesy visits to the Republic of Korea Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, the Minister of Unification – responsible for relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea – Ryoo Kihl-jae, and the Minister of Security and Public Administration – responsible for disaster preparedness and response – Yoo Jeong-bok.

He underlined the importance of International Disaster Law and urged closer cooperation between the government and the Korean Red Cross on disaster response. Mr. Konoe also expressed hopes for expansion of the government's contribution to IFRC operations in the DPRK, which are currently funded predominantly by Nordic and other European Red Cross Societies.

The IFRC President called for further cooperation among the Republic of Korea government, the Korean Red Cross and IFRC on the basis of a Memorandum of Understanding signed last year. The agreement envisages building on the synergies of the three partners to reach more people in need in many developing countries. The MoU has already opened the way for cooperation between IFRC's Global Logistics Services and the Korea International Cooperation Agency, the main government implementer of the accord.

While in Seoul, Mr. Konoe recorded a video message for Asia Pacific Red Cross Youth and others who are to attend the 2nd Model Annual IFRC General Assembly, to be hosted by the Korean Red Cross in August, along with a global youth camp.

"These are very important tools for developing young people's diplomatic, communication and leadership skills in a way which will equip them to be future Red Cross Red Crescent leaders, engaging with the humanitarian issues which we and the next generations face," he said.

During the President's visit, the Society marked the first anniversary of the establishment of a flagship social care programme called Heemang Poongcha, or Windmill of Hope.

The initiative, launched last year, strives to raise the quality of life for vulnerable young people, seniors, multicultural families and migrants in the four interlinked areas of livelihoods, health, housing and education.

"This is a key part of our work, because it mobilises support from the general public and resources from the corporate sector to help those who need assistance in our society and helps people to recognise the Korean Red Cross' important humanitarian role," said Korean Red Cross President Yu Jung-keun.

The project includes medical centres within Red Cross hospitals, which provide subsidised treatment for vulnerable people from these groups.

"I am really grateful to the Korean Red Cross for providing this service, because when I had my first two children, the cost of going to hospital and having checkups was a big worry – now I get a lot of help," Niouma Ducoure, 34, an asylum seeker from Mali in West Africa, said as she cradled her six-week-old baby at the Healthy Neighbor Center in Seoul's Red Cross Hospital.

Through mobilising support from the general public as volunteers and donors and bringing more of Korea's corporate sector on board – the giant auto-manufacturer Hyundai provides funding for the Healthy Neighbor Center – Korean Red Cross plans to keep up its dynamic drive to meet the country's changing needs.

Internationally, meanwhile, as the Republic of Korea's development assistance continues to grow, the country which once received development aid itself as one of the poorest in Asia, is committed to providing help to those that need it now.

"We in the the Korean Red Cross see ourselves as an important actor in this process, working closely with our Government and the IFRC to reach more vulnerable people in many parts of the world and President Konoe's meetings here have underlined this," said Korean Red Cross President Yu.