Ottawa Round Table Part 1 – Humanitarian Aid in the Current North Korean Context

Canadian Humanitarians at Round Table in Ottawa

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

During the two-week glimmer of hope between the US-DPRK “Leap Day Deal” and the subsequent announcement of North Korea’s satellite launch, a small but persistent group of Canadian humanitarians met in Canada’s capital on Monday, 5 March 2012, to discuss “Humanitarian Aid in the Current North Korean Context”.

The representatives of organizations still actively engaged in assistance to the people of North Korea harbored no illusions that the current transition in the DPRK leadership would melt away the difficulties involved in the provision of humanitarian aid. There was, however, a consensus that whatever the international climate may be at any particular time, engagement is a key to projecting Canadian values into the situation, whether by the government or by civil society. When Canadian government policy is engagement, this tends to support the work of Canadian NGOs, who in turn embody the best of Canada’s reputation for peace and human security. When government policy is non-engagement, the activities of NGOs nonetheless continue to further Canadian values, thus laying the groundwork for future engagement policies.

During the past several years, strategic, military and human rights issues in relation to North Korea have received a considerable amount of attention by Canada and the international community. By and large, humanitarian issues have taken the back seat. The humanitarian group assembled in Ottawa hoped that the plight of the North Korean people would not fall through the cracks. The long-term goal of peace and human security on the entire Korean Peninsula should remain the central focus of Canadian policies. Although the recent leadership change has not yet provided sufficient indicators of change, participants felt that this is an opportune time for Canadian re-engagement to benefit the North Korean people.

From 1997 to 2005, Canadian round tables on humanitarian assistance to the DPRK were held annually, attended by 30 to 40 people. In 2005 DPRK authorities announced that food aid was no longer needed, and the NGO-sponsored Food Aid Liaison Unit (FALU) was closed. Without a resident monitoring mechanism in place in Pyongyang, a number of NGOs had to reduce or curtail their assistance, for example the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB), which up to that point had been the largest Canadian donor of food, supported by matching grants from CIDA. (See appended report.) The existence of need in North Korea has not diminished significantly since 2005. Despite a general reduction in their activities, Canadian agencies continue to be involved. The focus has shifted from food aid to food security, nutrition, health care, a variety of training and educational exchanges.

The Ottawa round table was sponsored by the United Church of Canada (UCC) and organized by CanKor. Additional financial assistance was provided by the Canada-DPR Korea Association. Participating also were the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB), Presbyterian World Service and Development (PWSD) and World University Service of Canada (WUSC). Vancouver-based First Steps participated via Skype. Greetings were received from the English Language Institute Canada (ELIC), who were unable to send a representative because of scheduling conflicts. One staff person from DFAIT attended as an observer.

In his introductory remarks CanKor Editor-in-Chief Erich Weingartner noted the positive impetus provided by the US-DPRK Leap Day Accord, particularly the emphasis from the US side for an intensification of people-to-people contacts. He stressed that this may be the time for bold initiatives to test DPRK flexibility under its new leadership. Capacity building projects that transfer information and expertise useful for farmers, artisans, health care providers and teachers, private trades people and small communities should supplant the provision of emergency food aid. It is projects like this that build independent relationships and have the ability to change hearts and minds.

Since it proved impossible to encourage Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada to make a presentation about Canadian DPRK policies, CanKor Brain Trust member and retired civil servant Hartmuth Kroll did the honours, presenting a paper on “Canada-North Korea Bilateral Relations”. In his conclusion he noted that although episodes of “aggression and bad behaviour” on the part of the DPRK were met with a withdrawal of Canadian official support for engagement, there remained an underlying commitment to integrating North Korea into the international community of nations. The long-term goals for engagement included full denuclearization, political reform, improved human rights and regional security. Under the “Controlled Engagement Policy” currently in force, academic and humanitarian engagements are not banned, but neither are they encouraged. Financing from CIDA for any activity involving the DPRK is restricted. Kroll ended on a rather pessimistic note: “There is little prospect of change in these policies in the immediate future.”

Activity reports were heard from UCC, MCC, CFGB, PWSD and First Steps. (See below for appended reports.)

The CanKor Brain Trust was canvassed for their opinions on a number of questions. Responses were collated by Hartmuth Kroll and presented to the round table.

The round table operated according to Chatham House rules, so a detailed report of the discussions will not be published. Some of the conclusions reached include the following:

  • The most successful NGO activities are those that have built up relationships on the ground over time.
  • Although operating conditions in the DPRK are difficult (especially as regards random access for monitoring), NGOs with long-term relationships have found creative ways to surmount the challenges.
  • Projects oriented to food security, potable water for small villages, community health improvement and knowledge-based efforts have the potential for building mutual understanding and confidence.
  • To set human rights in opposition to humanitarian aid is a trap to be avoided.
  • The donor fatigue often quoted in relation to North Korea is based on consistent negative reporting in the media about the DPRK regime compared to little or no reporting about ongoing humanitarian and development-oriented activities by NGOs.
  • Engagement that emphasizes relationships (educational, technical, sports and artistic exchanges) produces a positive feedback loop: i.e. an expanded information flow via engagement produces opportunities for further engagement.

On the day following the round table (6 March 2012), a core group engaged in dialogue at the Department of Foreign Affairs with Alain Gendron (Director, Northeast Asia Division) and DFAIT colleagues, and at Parliament with Deputy Speaker of the House, MP Barry Devolin.


Opening Remarks by Erich Weingartner (

Canada-DPRK Bilateral Relations by Hartmuth Kroll (

Brief Summary of the DPRK Work of the Mennonite Central Committee

Canadian Foodgrains Bank Involvement in DPRK

Summary of CFGB Projects in the DPRK

First Steps responds to Questions about DPRK Involvement

CanKor Brain Trust responds to Questions about Current Situation in the DPRK (

One Response to “Ottawa Round Table Part 1 – Humanitarian Aid in the Current North Korean Context”

  1. Dwain Epps Says:

    Many thanks for this concise and incisive report. It highlights once again the essential role of “citizen diplomacy” in flattening the curve of increasingly volatile political trends and opportunistic policy changes by governments incapable of building a national consensus on either domestic or foreign relations. The great difference is of course NGOs’ committment to humanitarian assistance to people in need regardless of the policies of their governments and to weaving a fabric of peaceful relations among peoples. The one is short-term, responsive to self-serving party-political ideologies and beholden essentially to cumbersome government bureaucracies. Its personnnel tend to change with the political winds, leaving government without memory. The other is long-term, responsive to goals and commitments arrived at through open, consensus-building dialogue, and at its best is less bureaucratic and run by staff with long memories and deep personal relationships with partners. There is an obvious challenge here to government, but – lest we forget – to NGOs as well. In response to cries of “Wolf!” at the slightest hint of change on the other side, or in accommodation to their own government’s funding policies, NGOs are also tempted to become equally reactionary, short-term and bureaucratic. If they give in, we are really in trouble.

    So thanks, CanKor, for keeping these tensions in view, and for your expert cajoling and encouragement in equal measure.

    Dwain C. Epps

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