Ottawa Round Table Part 2 – Opening Remarks by Erich Weingartner

Finding the Right Balance to Aid North Korean People

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

Origin of this Round Table

In February 2011 a number of agencies received messages from DPRK authorities urgently requesting food aid. These requests unleashed a vibrant discussion within the humanitarian and policy communities as to whether the need is great enough to warrant emergency aid, and if so, whether monitoring can be sufficiently guaranteed to prevent diversion to the military or the elite at the expense of those most in need.

Assessment missions were sent by the FAO/WFP, the EU, the USA, as well as a consortium of US-based NGOs. All concluded that the food deficit is real, although there was considerable disagreement about the capacity of aid agencies to mount a robust monitoring regime. The EU and a number of countries decided to deliver modest quantities of aid. Canada contributed 2.5 million dollars to the WFP for eventual use in North Korea. The USA continued bilateral negotiations that resulted in a positive decision in December 2011. An announcement was to be made the week that Kim Jong Il died.

In early summer 2011 CanKor initiated discussions among Canadian NGOs as to whether the situation merited a Canadian initiative. Only a very small number of Canadian agencies still delivered modest amounts of targeted food aid to the DPRK. Continuing questions surrounding monitoring standards in the DPRK discouraged other NGOs from initiating any significant new food aid activities.

On the other hand, there were still a number of NGOs interested in convening a round table to engage in discussion about North Korean humanitarian dilemmas. Some were concerned that the food aid debate had become increasingly politicized. What was the basis of decisions surrounding food aid, for example? Were food aid decisions made for humanitarian purposes, or has food become an additional tool in the exercise of coercive diplomacy to further aims such as rolling back DPRK nuclear weapons development, promoting human rights, or encouraging democratic development and/or regime change?

Major emphases of the Canadian government during the past several years have been related to the DPRK nuclear tests, the sinking of the Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the subsequent sanctions. Parliamentarians have been involved in the human rights and refugees issue, with hearings held on Parliament Hill and the awarding of the first Diefenbaker human rights prize to a prominent South Korean organization specializing in North Korean human rights. Although CIDA did respond to the WFP food requests with a modest donation, there seems to be some embarrassment in acknowledging the contribution. Several requests for information have been left unanswered, and CIDA staff has confessed in private conversations that publicity about the donation was to be avoided.

Following the death of Kim Jong Il last December, some of us felt that the time was ripe for another look at the humanitarian issues in the current context. It has been 6 years since the last round table of this kind was convened. Prior to that, the CFGB had hosted annual gatherings focused specifically on humanitarian aid to the DPRK. Some felt it was a good time to re-connect and exchange views, others felt that there was a need to remind the Canadian government of continuing humanitarian needs in North Korea and the activities of Canadian NGOs in that regard.

Human Rights and Humanitarian Perspectives

Since CanKor was revived with a new website and new focus two years ago, we have tried to find a way to reconcile two perspectives on how to better the lives of the North Korean people. I am referring to the two most active NGO communities dealing with North Korea: those who promote human rights and those who engage in humanitarian assistance. Both these communities share the long-term goal of bettering the lives of the North Korean people, but they have different starting points and a different set of priorities and methodologies, which often set them into conflict with each other. I should clarify that humanitarians have profound human rights convictions and consider their activities to be within a framework of broad social and economic rights, whereas those I have labelled human rights activists also have deep humanitarian convictions. Ideally there should not be a conflict between them, and CanKor has set its sights on providing a bridge between the two.

It comes down to a debate around priorities and methodologies. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. Do we feed the hungry and equip them with knowledge so that they can promote their own rights, or do we promote their civil and political rights in order to free them to create their own democratic and economic future?

At the risk of oversimplification, let me try to explain why the two communities seem to be at loggerheads, especially in a situation like the DPRK, where human rights activists place priority on the ending of a repressive regime, and humanitarians place priority on helping people survive a repressive regime.

  • The language of human rights fits best within a legal framework, especially where civil and political rights are at issue. The focus is the violation of human rights, the protection of victims and the indictment of perpetrators. The tools used by human rights organizations include bringing to light the dark underbelly of a society. The emphasis is on publicity, public education regarding human rights abuses, putting international political pressure on governments, bringing violators to justice, liberating victims and advocating on behalf of refugees.
  • Humanitarian assistance operates within an economic framework. The focus is on saving and improving the lives of people where they are. In emergencies, this may include timely food assistance. When the emergency is over, the emphasis is on human capacity for sustainable food security, health protection, and economic development. Humanitarians aim to help people to help themselves.
  • Human rights advocates raise public awareness of the negatives in order to win converts to the cause. This includes naming and shaming perpetrators, putting victims and their stories before the public to shock and enrage, engaging in political advocacy to increase international pressure on the DPRK regime. Some go as far as promoting external intervention under the responsibility to protect. Others believe that engaging in dialogue with DPRK interlocutors and offering human rights education, as well as working within the UN system will achieve better long-term results. Assistance to victims and advocacy for the needs of refugees and defectors are a large part of the activities of some human rights agencies.
  • Humanitarian workers aim to improve the lives of people on the ground, which often means working quietly within the system, gradually enlarging their field of operation. They supply expertise for food security and development projects that have the greatest prospects of reaching those most in need and of being replicated in other parts of the country. They aim to build capacity toward empowerment. They use education not merely to enlighten the grass roots, but also to win the hearts and minds of the elite gatekeepers, in order to broaden minds and free the imagination for alternative worldviews. In order continue to operate in a society as closed as the DPRK, this often means maintaining a level of confidentiality and avoiding international publicity or highlighting the negative parts of their experience.

It should not be too difficult to understand why these two communities are so often at loggerheads. I am one of the very few individuals who regularly receive invitations to conferences organized by both. This allows me to hear complaints by both sides about each other. Humanitarians are accused of pandering to the DPRK regime, offering carrots without sticks. They are viewed as bleeding hearts and fellow travellers who ignore underlying causes and whose activities help to prop up failing rogue regimes. Human rights advocates are portrayed as idealists who offer only sticks and no carrots. Their prurient love of horror stories leads to the re-victimization of refugees they parade before the public, destroys hope and consequently leads to the very apathy they seek to eliminate. Their focus on punishment ignores the complicity of their own governments and opulent life-styles.

To my mind, this unfortunate divide is counter-productive for both sides, because it can so easily be misused for political purposes by those in power positions both within the DPRK and within the international community. The real question is not who is right and who is wrong, but what actions achieve the best possible results for the North Korean people whom we wish to serve. It means looking at longer-term perspectives in light of current realities. It means de-ideologizing the discussion; turning our attention toward clarifying short-term and long-term goals; and on the basis of these, developing strategies and tactics to achieve them.

Both human rights and humanitarian assistance are called for. The two require different approaches, but surely there is room for a division of labour. The reason we are meeting here in Ottawa is that our legislators seem to have lost sight of the humanitarian side of this current divide. We need to remind them that human rights should not be promoted at the expense of or exclusive of humanitarian concerns and action.

The current situation

We meet in very interesting times. With the leadership transition in the DPRK, this Year of the Dragon promises many more surprises. The DPRK is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Great Leader Kim Il Sung, the 70th of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, who died in December. The new young leader Kim Jong Un is a virtual unknown both to his own people and to the international community. Sixty years after the Korean War, there is no peace in sight. The people of North and South Korea still live in fear of a real war. The North-South impasse has led to renewed belligerence in recent years. The DPRK has acquired and tested nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

But there seems also to be a fear of peace. What would peace hold for regional stability, the interests of China, Japan, the USA or the economic fortunes of South Korea? Could the North Korean regime and its elite population survive a negotiated peace? The fact that the leadership transition has been so smooth thus far may indicate an acceptance that radical change can only be detrimental to the interests of North Korea’s elite population.

Economically, North Korea has been in near-collapse for at least two decades. Food shortages continue to plague a significant fraction of the population. The newest trend in North Korea is for a sharper stratification between the haves and have-nots. A symbol of the nouveau-riche merchant elite is the rapid rise of cell phones to one million in less than two years. The continued existence of labour camps and refugee flows into China attests to continued economic deprivation of the majority and fear of political instability.

There is an increasing dependency of the DPRK on China, whose desire for “stability” translates into maintaining the status quo. But from my perspective, despite protestations to the contrary, the international community also seems more comfortable with the status quo and fearful of the uncertainties that come with real change in Korea. This round table is not the place to discuss this, but we must take care not to be seduced by the ease with which the perception of evil in the other justifies our own aggressive complicity.


Perhaps it is my overoptimistic nature, but I am convinced that the current transition in the DPRK does offer some yet-to-be-discovered opportunities. This may be a good time for bold new initiatives to probe the flexibility of the new leadership. The “Leap Day Deal” between the USA and the DPRK is certainly to be commended, whether or not there will be an appropriate follow-through.

In particular, I am referring to the statement that “the United States is prepared to take steps to increase people-to-people exchanges, including in the areas of culture, education, and sports.” It is something many of us have been promoting for many years. My children would call this a “no-brainer”. We tend to criticize the DPRK regime for isolating its people from the rest of the world, but our no-contact policies have tended to contribute to this isolation. People-to-people exchanges need not be seen as the result of negotiated agreements. More often than not they precede and facilitate agreements because they allow for a mutual exchange of perceptions and clarification of positions and attitudes.

My hope for this Round Table – apart from catching up with each other about our experiences working in the DPRK and with North Koreans – is that we will be stimulated to use our collective creativity to imagine new opportunities and convey these not only to our respective constituencies, but also to our colleagues in the Canadian Parliament, DFAIT and CIDA.

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