What Works Best? by Erich Weingartner

There is a simple question I am often asked when speaking about humanitarian assistance: What works best with the DPRK?

Simple questions don’t always result in simple answers, and when it comes to the DPRK, simple answers don’t exist. Actually, even simple questions turn out to be more complex when applied to the DPRK: What do we mean by the words “works best”? Works best for whom? For what purpose? Under what circumstances? During what time period? And who or what determines what works best?

North Korean children consuming donated food (Picture by Erich Weingartner)

North Korean children consuming donated food (Picture by Erich Weingartner)

Works best for whom?

For the donors? For the implementing agencies? For the recipient country? For the intended beneficiaries?

What works best for international agencies may not work best for Korean organizations. What works best for resident NGOs may not work for non-resident NGOs. What works best for European NGOs under the umbrella of the EU or EC or ECHO may not work for American NGOs distributing the donations of US-AID. What works best for the Eugene Bell Foundation may not work at all for Doctors Without Borders (MSF). What works best for the elite in Pyongyang may not work well for the families of unemployed workers in Chongjin.

Works best for what purpose?

What may work best in the short term may not work best with a longer-term perspective in mind. When evaluating assistance programme models and strategies, we should consider what long-term objectives we are seeking to achieve:

  • When we intervene in the DPRK, is our only goal to feed the hungry?
  • Or are we also concerned about peace and security in the region? Read the rest of this entry »

Reconciling the Human Factor, by Erich Weingartner

[This article, first published on our partner-website 38North on Tuesday, 28 May 2013, is based on presentations given at Glendon College, York University in Toronto in April, and at UCLA, Los Angeles in May. It represents CanKor's attempt to provide a framework for rational discussion among conflicting policy alternatives aimed at relieving the suffering of North Korean people. CanKor Editor Erich Weingartner has been involved with Korea since 1978, spending half his career working on human rights and the other half dealing with humanitarian assistance. --CanKor]

Understanding the North Korean Human Rights/Humanitarian Divide

Author Erich Weingartner at the UCLA conference on Ending the Korean War (Photo by Kil Sang Yoon)

Author Erich Weingartner at UCLA conference on Ending the Korean War (Photo by Kil Sang Yoon)

With political leaders and the media perpetually focused on the behavior of a young hereditary leader and his nuclear-armed military, does anybody really care what happens to ordinary people in North Korea? There are two major constituencies internationally that do care: the humanitarian community and the human rights community.

When widespread starvation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) became evident in the mid to late 1990s, humanitarian agencies launched a massive and largely successful rescue effort to stem the famine. Human rights organizations have meanwhile played a pivotal role in exposing North Korea’s dismal record of abuses, culminating in the recent appointment by the United Nations Human Rights Council of a Commission of Inquiry (CoI).

Since both claim that their objective is to ease the plight of suffering North Koreans, you might think these communities would be natural allies. But sadly, those working on North Korean human rights do not seem to get along very well with those providing humanitarian assistance to the DPRK. Not only do their goals and methods often contradict each other, their practitioners sometimes engage in verbal battles and mutual recrimination. This conflict is likely to intensify now that the three-member CoI has begun its one-year assignment. Read the rest of this entry »

Members of UN-mandated probe into human rights abuses in DPR Korea announced

[This announcement was published by the United Nations News Service on 7 May 2013. --CanKor]

President of the Human Rights Council Remigiusz A. Henczel (right) and High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. (Photo by Violaine Martin)

President of the Human Rights Council Remigiusz A. Henczel (right) and High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. (Photo by Violaine Martin)

The President of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Remigiusz A. Henczel, today announced the appointment of the members of the commission of inquiry set up to investigate alleged abuses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The three-member commission will comprise Michael Donald Kirby, a retired judge from Australia; Sonja Biserko, founder and president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia; and Marzuki Darusman, former Attorney General of Indonesia and the current UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in DPRK. Read the rest of this entry »

North Korea Faces Heightened Human Rights Scrutiny, by Roberta Cohen

[CanKor Brain Trust member Roberta Cohen published an extensive analysis of the latest decision by the UN Human Rights Council regarding the DPRK in our partner-website 38North. For the benefit of CanKor readers we reprint the first part of this article here. For the rest of the paper, including footnotes, please access the 38North website here. --CanKor]

Roberta CohenOn March 21, 2013 the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body of 47 states, adopted by consensus a resolution to establish a commission of inquiry (COI) into North Korea’s “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights.” The commission is to be composed of three experts who will intensively investigate for a period of one year the human rights violations perpetrated by North Korea’s government with a view to ensuring “full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity” [emphasis added].

The establishment of the commission reflects long overdue recognition that a human rights ‘emergency’ exists in North Korea. Commissions of inquiry at the United Nations have mainly been directed at situations like Syria, Darfur or Libya where conflicts, atrocities and destruction are clearly visible and in the headlines. Adding North Korea to the list suggests a new look at what a human rights crisis might be. In contrast to other situations, North Korea has always managed to hide its crimes. Most prison camps are in remote mountain areas, access to the country is barred to human rights groups, and rigid internal controls make it impossible for anyone who does manage to visit to talk with North Koreans about human rights. Indeed, the lack of access and the UN’s inability to form an “independent diagnosis” of the situation has long contributed to the reluctance of its senior officials to speak out strongly about North Korea. Even the US State Department’s human rights report for 2011, published in 2012, contained the caveat that no one can “assess fully human rights conditions or confirm reported abuses” in North Korea. Read the rest of this entry »

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights calls for international inquiry

[The following article was issued by the Media Centre of the Office of the UNHCHR, dated Geneva, 14 January 2013. The South African lawyer Navanethem Pillay has been the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights since 1 September 2008. --CanKor]

Pillay urges more attention to human rights abuses in North Korea

Press conference Navanethem PillayThe UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called Monday for the international community to put much more effort into tackling the “deplorable” human rights situation of people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and said the time had come for a full-fledged international inquiry into serious crimes that had been taking place in the country for decades.

“There were some initial hopes that the advent of a new leader might bring about some positive change in the human rights situation in DPRK,” Pillay said. “But a year after Kim Jong Un became the country’s new supreme leader, we see almost no sign of improvement.”

“I am also concerned that, at the international level, the spotlight is almost exclusively focused on DPRK’s nuclear programme and rocket launches,” she said. “While these, of course, are issues of enormous importance, they should not be allowed to overshadow the deplorable human rights situation in DPRK, which in one way or another affects almost the entire population and has no parallel anywhere else in the world.” Read the rest of this entry »

Books: Escape From Camp 14


ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14, by Blaine Harden. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2012. X 224 pp. hardcover. ISBN 978-0670023325. Reviewed by CanKor “Human Factor” editor Jack Kim.


For those who disbelieved, and continue to disbelieve, North Korean refugees when they first started trickling in, Shin Dong Hyuk’s story is the mother of them all. Born in a concentration camp, witness to unspeakable horrors, the protagonist of an amazing escape from a country that condemned him even before he was born. The story is, well, far too fantastic. It is unbelievable.

His story has been well documented in the media. After all, the book hit double digits on the amazon.com best seller list. According to Shin, he was born in Camp 14 to inmates of the camp, grew up there, watched his mother and brother executed, and serendipitously managed to escape not only the camp, but the DPRK itself. According to the author, Shin describes nonchalantly every day features of the camp that to those of us fortunate enough to live outside its fences, stir up Holocaust imagery: starvation, public executions, camp guards savagely beating inmates. He describes how snitching became a method of survival, to the point that he reverses previous accounts of his life in the book by admitting that this very snitching led to the execution of his mother and brother. Read the rest of this entry »

Progressives, Meet Bandwagon

Historically, progressives in the ROK have taken a vow of silence when it comes to North Korean human rights (“NKHR”).

Rep. Lee Seok Ki gets accosted by farmers… opposed to the FTA

For anyone involved in the issue, this has been a sore point even before the days of the Sunshine policy. Conservatives love to bring this up (at times for their own reasons) and progressives do not (again, at times for their own reasons). What are these reasons, you ask?

To answer this, we should go to a fundamental premise behind human rights: they are inherently political. The issue of NKHR is of no exception. Unfortunately, this issue has been yanked artificially away from the realm of “simply political;” rather what we have seen with the issue is a hyper-politicization that has created a schism between the left and the right. This divide quickly came to the point that some progressives in the past had remained peculiarly silent on NKHR. Read the rest of this entry »

David Hawk on the second edition of Hidden Gulag

[In 2003, CanKor Brain Trust member David Hawk, Visiting Scholar at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights, authored "The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps" for the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. The book contained numerous former prisoners' testimonies and satellite photographs of the locations identified by them. Earlier this year a second, revised and augmented edition of this book was published. We asked David to explain why a new edition seemed necessary and some of the differences between the two. --CanKor]

David R. Hawk

CanKor: Why a second edition of Hidden Gulag?

Hawk: The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea wanted a second edition because the 2003 edition was long out of print. So rather than reprint additional hard copies of a then eight year old report, the Committee asked me to do an update.

Hidden Gulag had become something of a textbook on political imprisonment in North Korea. So I wanted to do an update that would have a “long shelf live” in the sad event that things in the DPRK remain largely the same. The Committee agreed that I should do an almost entirely new report as there is now much more information available about the practices of arbitrary detention. (When in 2002-2003 I did thirty in-depth interviews for the first edition there were some 3,000 former North Koreans who fled to China and South Korea, among whom were two score persons who had been imprisoned in the DPRK. By 2010-11 when I did an additional thirty interviews for the 2nd edition there were some 23,000 former North Koreans now recently resident in South Korea, among whom literally hundreds were previously incarcerated in the DPRK’s variety of forced labor facilities for persons deemed to have committed political offenses.) Read the rest of this entry »

A Monk’s Earthly Mission: Easing North Koreans’ Pain, by Choe Sang-Hun

[I have known the Ven. Pomnyun for more than a dozen years. We meet infrequently on my trips to Seoul. He is one of the rare people who has made the transition from human rights struggles in South Korea to human rights struggles for the North Korean people. He is also one of the rare examples of a human rights-minded activist who sees human rights as much more than civil and political rights. For Pomnyun and the "Good Friends" organization that he founded, the current price of rice in North Korea's markets is as important as the current number of prisoners in North Korea's labour camps. Economic, social and cultural rights occupy a large part of his agenda, which also means that Pomnyun has tirelessly promoted humanitarian assistance to North Korea, despite concerns about monitoring its distribution. Although the information collected by his organization is not always the most reliable, it does provide informal and localized indicators of change, for example in the food supply of villages and counties outside urban areas. We were pleased to see this article about Pomnyun, authored by Choe Sang-Hun, in the New York Times on 27 April 2012, and offer it here for our readers. --EW, CanKor]

South Korean Buddhist monk Venerable Pomnyun in his office at Peace Foundation in Seoul. (Photo by Woohae Cho, The International Herald Tribune)

In August 1996, the Venerable Pomnyun, a Buddhist monk from South Korea, was cruising down the Yalu River between China and North Korea when he saw a boy squatting alone at the North Korean edge of the water. The boy was in rags, his gaunt face covered in dirt.

Pomnyun shouted to him, but the boy did not respond. Pomnyun’s Chinese companion explained that North Korean children were instructed never to beg from foreigners. And when Pomnyun asked if the boat could be steered closer to the child to bring help, he was reminded that they could not enter North Korean territory.

“Never before had I realized the meaning of a border so painfully until that day,” said Pomnyun, 59. “Never before had I felt so acutely that Korea is a divided nation.” Read the rest of this entry »

Ottawa Round Table Part 4 – CanKor Brain Trust on the Current Situation in the DPRK

CanKor Brain Trust on the Current Situation in the DPRK

by Paul Evans, Victor Hsu, Hazel Smith, Hark Kroll, Jeremy Paltiel and Jack Kim

Ottawa Round Table on Humanitarian Aid in the Current North Korean Context, 5 March 2012

Q: What dangers and opportunities can you foresee in the evolving situation?

Paul Evans, Professor, Liu Institute for Global Issues; Director, Institute of Asian Research, UBC:

Why assume that the KJU era will be any different? My only glimpse into the fog is the signal from the group that attended the six-month training program here that it was business as usual for a second phase, with no changes expected. I had dinner with a DPRK diplomat in Bangkok as part of an ARF meeting and more or less out of the blue he asked me how the UBC training program had gone and how we could find ways to get more DPRK students to Canada in future. Really out of context and it may be that he only guessed at a connection and my interest by seeing my card. But…

Victor Hsu, Visiting Professor, School of Public Policy and Management , Korea Development Institute (KDI), Seoul:

From my perspective, assuming that ROK maintains its current attempt to reverse the LMB policy, opportunities are going to increase. I don’t believe there will be any continuation of refusal to provide humanitarian aid. Both main parties in ROK are framing renewed engagement, as is the USA. EU will follow suit.

Hazel Smith, Professor of Resilience and Security, Cranfield University, UK:

The DPRK government is far from unique in being culpable of poor governance and failing to meet the food needs of its people. Arguing that the DPRK humanitarian and food crises are unique is wrong in advocacy terms because it reinforces the politicisation of aid to the DPRK in its emphasis on the ‘exceptionally awful’ case of the DPRK.

The reasons for food shortages and economic failure in the DPRK are prosaic. Like very large numbers of governments, the DPRK government lacks oil (to generate revenue), suffered the withdrawal of external subsidies, has an obsolescent economic infrastructure in every respect, and is governed by a non-democratic, economically illiterate and inept government. Read the rest of this entry »

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