Choosing a highlight from two decades of charity projects is easy for seasoned aid worker Kathi Zellweger. The success of a small programme to help ethnic-minority Salar women in rural Qinghai province read and write Chinese characters stood out, she said. Over two years, about 2,000 illiterate women in 50 Xunhua county villages learned to read the instructions on fertiliser bags and price tags at market places, and avoid being cheated, Ms Zellweger said. 'These are women who never had an opportunity to go to school,' she said. 'And what a difference it made to their lives ... I mean, these are very basic things which we forget because we are so used to [them].' Ms Zellweger's simple goal of improving people's lives has driven numerous aid projects for thousands of people. She has devoted her time and energy to everything from skill-training programmes to disaster relief. Despite a wealth of experience from her 28 years as the Hong Kong-based international co-operation director of Catholic aid agency Caritas, Ms Zellweger said there were always new challenges. 'It never became routine, from working for Hong Kong's community, the Vietnamese refugees, and then with China,' said the 54-year-old Swiss national, who's been to every Chinese province except Guizhou . Ms Zellweger will embark on another broadening of her experience in November, when she heads the Swiss government's office for development based in Pyongyang, and leads a team of Swiss and North Koreans. She is no stranger to the North Koreans, nor they to her, as she has been in and out of the hermit nation since April 1995, when she was one of the first aid workers to bring relief to its starving population after that year's disastrous floods. Probably the aid worker with the most extensive access to North Korea and its people, Ms Zellweger's links to the country began when she befriended a North Korean official at a UN meeting in Beijing in 1993, and the aid effort took root. Her painstaking efforts over more than a decade were recognised last year when she received South Korea's prestigious Bishop Tji Hak Soon Justice and Peace Award. In her new role in Pyongyang, Ms Zellweger will focus on improving agriculture, food-processing, marketing and capacity-building in different sectors that directly benefit the struggling population. While there are social parallels with the mainland Chinese experience, Ms Zellweger said North Korea was different to China. North Korea had only begun to dabble in market reforms in the past few years, while China had an open-door policy since the late 1970s. But she said a similarity was North Korea's drive for greater economic development and - despite on-going diplomatic wrangles - its gradual convergence with the rest of the world. 'If you had told me five years ago [that] you could go to markets like [Beijing's] Hongqiao [an indoor mall stocked with anything from clothing to electrical products to food] in Pyongyang, I would have said, 'You must be joking'. And I am going there now,' Ms Zellweger said. Such places emerged after North Korea introduced basic economic reforms in 2002, with an adjustment of wages and prices, and the opening up of street markets. Reforms have also hastened the growth of commercial traffic, as well as aid, between the two Koreas. Two-way trade between the North and the South, legalised in 1988, has risen from US$18.8 million in 1989 to US$697 million in 2004. Quest Information estimated that half consisted of commerce and the rest was aid and co-operative projects. Similarly, North Korea has strengthened ties with China, from which it tries to learn market reforms. Leader Kim Jong-il this year visited Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai, cities at the forefront of economic reforms. Chinese firms invested US$130 million in North Korea by the end of June, according to the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, citing an unnamed official from the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang. Trade between the two nations has grown from US$488 million in 2000, at a rate of 26.5 per cent to US$1.58 billion last year. Of the total, 75 per cent came from northeastern provinces such as Jilin and Liaoning , which border North Korea, the institute reported. There are also ongoing talks between Jilin and North Korea for further infrastructure investments, including cross-border rail and road links. At Caritas, Ms Zellweger also linked North Korean disabled people's delegations with their neighbouring counterparts - the China Disabled Person Federation - so they could share their experiences and information. North Korean society, she said, was where the mainland was 20 years ago. The country's development had recently come to a virtual standstill, with no new influx of funds to improve and build new infrastructure, she said. North Korea's missile tests undermined much of the goodwill that it had established with western governments. South Korea responded swiftly by suspending aid, although last week it offered to resume the millions of dollars of aid if the North returned to the six-nation talks on scrapping its nuclear programme. North Korea is probably the world's most centrally planned economy, with limited ties to the rest of the world. It reported a real gross domestic product growth of just 1 per cent in 2004. Its GDP in 2003 was US$10.13 million, just US$800 per head. Agriculture accounts for less than one-third of the economy and food shortages are still an issue, according to the UN World Food Programme. The organisation forecast a shortfall this year of 800,000 tonnes, about 15 per cent of the needs. 'The state no longer fully provides,' Ms Zellweger said. 'I do think there are lots of people in North Korea who have a very hard time.' The farmers coped because they produced food, but the workers who suffered were the ones who didn't grow anything, she said. This is also where it differed from China's reform experience. On the mainland, about 65 per cent used to be farmers and 35 per cent worked in industries, she said. In North Korea, it was the opposite. In the long term, North Korea needed to develop its industries to pay for food imports, which was 'more cost effective', Ms Zellweger said. Since last year Caritas, responding to North Korea's request for help from aid agencies, has shifted from humanitarian aid to development co-operation. Projects have included farm- and plant-efficiency assistance. However, in the agency's latest report of its work in the country, it said 'the shift in political climate and the consequent shift to [North Korea] reliance on South Korean aid had two major consequences ... non-sustainability of agricultural recovery, and loss of transparency in needs and vulnerability analysis'. For all the speculation that surrounds the North - much of it due to the western media's portrayal of its isolation - Ms Zellweger said she had a different take on the situation. 'When it comes to North Korea, I am very cautious ... you read the press, it is so negative and you wonder: have we been to the same place? I only believe what I see with my own eyes. There is so much speculation,' she said. 'And it worries me that all you read is the nuclear stuff, the politics, and the quite sensational. It's easy to forget that there are millions of ordinary people, just like you and I, [who] have the same aspirations as we have - for a peaceful and fulfilling life.' It hasn't helped that the small number of reporters who had visited the country went with a 'fixed frame of reference', she said. Instead, Ms Zellweger prefers to move ahead with the optimism, to lay whatever groundwork she and her team can in the 'in-between time' before peace is reached on the Korean peninsula. 'As long as we do not have a peace agreement, it is difficult for the country to move forward ... but it doesn't mean we do not do anything,' she said, adding that the 23 million population was highly literate. 'We train people to be ready for change when change does take place,' Ms Zellweger said.