As North Korea battles to keep its population from starving, a woman in a small office in Hong Kong is working overtime to ensure the success of a relief project that could save thousands of lives. Kaethi Zellweger is co-ordinating the international Catholic charity Caritas' worldwide food and development aid programme for North Korea. A new shipment, 1,900 tonnes of rice and 2,000 tonnes of maize from Vietnam, has been loaded in Ho Chi Minh City on to a locally chartered sea-freighter, too late for the several thousand reportedly dead from starvation since September, but enough, they hope, to stop a recurrence in the areas they have targeted. By the time it arrives in North Korea in late April, Ms Zellweger and her Caritas team will be on hand to monitor its distribution in the desperately hungry provinces of Kangwon and North Hwanghae and ensure it gets into the right hands. With more money coming in from Caritas branches elsewhere, another shipment is expected next month. So the team will also try to assess where the next shipment is most needed. That involves not only negotiations with the government's flood rehabilitation commission, but meeting villagers, going into their homes and finding out how bad the situation really is. Clearly, it is not always easy to make those assessments. Although after nine visits, Ms Zellweger admits even the North Koreans are more open with her now and have lost some of their fear of speaking, it is still difficult going into homes and seeing just how little they really have. 'The people are so friendly,' she says. 'But they're shy. Of course it's embarrassing when you ask to see what they have got and they take you into their kitchens and they have almost nothing.' They are even embarrassed to show the damage to their walls where the floods came in. Just the same it all sounds deceptively simple, almost charming. Perhaps it is simpler than the humdrum, but essential tasks of worldwide fund-raising, purchasing food, chartering ships and working out distribution plans that the Swiss-born director of international co-operation carries out from her desk in Hong Kong. The territory's financial contribution to the operation is small, except for doing the work for free. But without Ms Zellweger's painstakingly established contacts, her administrative skills and the trust the local Caritas structure had begun to build up in Pyongyang even before the floods, the job would have been far, far harder. A glance through her collection of photographs - of buildings and landscapes destroyed by the floods of the past two years, hungry children and women searching for wild roots and grasses to supplement their meagre diet - shows the hard part is really out there in the real world, coping with other people's misery. It is the progression from mere poverty to malnutrition and starvation which shocks. The first pictures - taken after the first disastrous floods in 1995 - capture wrecked wooden buildings and stone walls with the high-water mark still visible near the top of each one-storey dwelling. But the children still look well fed and happy. Later shots, from after the second round of devastating floods last year, show the deterioration in the children's faces, the tired eyes, the runny noses, the sure signs of hunger and incipient malnutrition. 'In 1995, the children looked okay' says Ms Zellweger, 'partly because the adults gave them food first. So you didn't see children with hunger-bellies. But it's coming.' She already has one shot of a child with a swollen belly. Looking at a picture from last May of women working to rebuild an embankment washed away by the rain, a note of pity comes into her voice. 'The energy levels were really down,' she says. 'You could see how hard it was to lift the equipment.' Hunger comes slowly. It is a gradual deterioration year by year. Already, with a grain shortfall for the year estimated at 1.5 to two million tonnes, villagers have eaten into stocks intended for much later in the season. Surprised that people were looking reasonably well fed on her last visit in December, Ms Zellweger was told potatoes and maize which should not have come out of storage for months never made it into store in the first place. Both Ms Zellweger, who has not been to North Korea for a couple of months and staff at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office in Pyongyang say they have not seen anyone starving yet. But with the warehouses empty, the really tough period is still ahead - between now and July, when the harvest comes in. The big question now is what the outside world is and can be doing. The aid from Caritas and other charities is a drop in the ocean, as Ms Zellweger is the first to admit. The worst hit provinces, mostly the areas to the south and west of Pyongyang, are the granary of North Korea. So the effects of the flood damage have been felt equally throughout the country. But for all its limited effect, the aid and interest have been appreciated. Ms Zellweger and UNDP staff say the government gives them ready access to areas they want to see. She says, there has never been a feeling they were being directed to particular communities for political reasons or to show off the best side of North Korea. 'The places we went to were in pretty bad shape,' she says. 'There was no sense that some people were richer than others. There was a sense of shared deprivation' Nor does she believe the food is in danger of being syphoned off to feed the military. The government has assured the Caritas team that military and civilian procurement were conducted separately. With the agency's consistent monitoring of its distribution programmes, carried on by the United Nations World Food Programme when she is out of the country, she does not believe the authorities would play games. 'They also know what it would mean if our aid were misused. It would stop. They can't afford that,' she says. But is food enough? People are not sitting around listlessly doing nothing and waiting for the state authorities to come and help them, the Caritas director says. Whether because this is how they have been indoctrinated to behave under North Korea's juche, or self-reliance doctrine, or whether it is because of their natural industry and energy, they are doing what they can to help themselves. The villagers have been rebuilding dams and dykes, often with the help of the army, and there is no shortage of building materials. 'The government pleaded with us to concentrate on bringing in food,' she says. 'They said: 'Reconstruction we can do. But we cannot produce more food'.' Normally, however, Caritas sees itself as a development agency, rather than a conduit for emergency aid. Even now, it is running a project in North Korean factories to produce plastic covering to protect seedlings and speed up the rehabilitation of flood-damaged fields. It is running vocational training courses in Pyongyang, and equipping training centres with appropriate technology, to help put the country back on its feet. But that, says Ms Zellweger, is the long-term route to rehabilitation. 'To the desperate you give food. You can't give vocational training to the starving.'