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.

The DPRK is not deliberately trying to starve its people and has engaged in large numbers of initiatives over the last 15 years to try to improve agricultural production. Many of these initiatives have been misconceived, e.g. land rezoning, and over-centralised in their execution, e.g. the planting of spring barley with insufficient chemicals and fertiliser to prevent the introduction of pests that damage the main crops. There is, however, space to work with the DPRK government to introduce better agricultural planning as is amply demonstrated by the continued work of FAO, SDC, EU and South Korean NGOS in this area.

There is certainly a need for humanitarian assistance given well-documented food availability and accessibility problems. Like many other countries with poor governance, humanitarian aid is likely to continue to be needed because of the likely absence of improvement in economic and social conditions and poor governance.

Imagining that aid should only be given if governance improves provides a contradiction in terms, as humanitarian aid is by definition only necessary when governments are not able to respond to the needs of their people. Once humanitarian need has been identified, the application of political conditionality to the delivery of humanitarian assistance is a morally bankrupt position as it demonstrates a dereliction of international humanitarian and ethical responsibilities to help those who have difficulties in helping themselves and who are unfortunate enough to live in a state where the government does not, cannot or is not providing for the basic needs of its population.

Hark Kroll, Consultant on Foreign Affairs, Retired Korea Desk Officer at Foreign Affairs Canada:

Dangers: The situation remains unsettled. There will be increased (if this is possible) suspicion of the motives of all outside influences. What will be the effect of infighting to establish a position as advisor (or emenance gris) to Kim Jong-un?

Kim Jong-un still needs to establish his position with the governing elite. He is spending a lot of time with the military. He may arrange an “outrage” to reaffirm his credentials – like the missiles that were fired the day that the death of KJI was announced.

Opportunity: The people have been promised a prosperous 2012. The regime needs help to make this happen, and will need to be on its best behaviour.

Q: What are the “known unknowns” and/or “driving forces” that we need to keep our eyes on?

Victor Hsu:

The unknown is the degree of “non-humanitarian” assistance that will be officially allowed. So much will depend on NGO ingenuity and persistence and a willingness not to brag about possibilities till everything is cast in stone. Sometimes NGOs are their own worst collaborators. The other “known unknown” is the ability of the DPRK to engage in systematic knowledge sharing and transfer, a necessary process that requires planning for the medium-term so that the experiences of its officials can be used and leveraged internally. This kind of approach will expand future activities because foreign partners are eager to engage in technical assistance.

Hark Kroll:

Look for any form of state led or state permitted change in the economic regulations. For now the regime wants stability, but is under internal and external pressure to make the economy work better. The need for outside assistance (as in the food aid from the USA) may force unwelcome decisions.

Q: What initiatives (diplomatic or humanitarian) might the Canadian Government or civil society pursue to enable or to test new openings in the current situation?

Victor Hsu:

Given that diplomatic relations exist, the way to test new openings is for CIDA or for the NGOs to propose a substantive project. In addition to these, Canada may wish to take a look at the extensive training program for the DPRK run by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. I have little doubt that if offered, a similar program will be grabbed by the DPRK enthusiastically. They like exchange programmes. Humanitarian agencies have not excelled in planning significant and meaningful projects in the DPRK as part of the exchange. I believe this is the shortcoming of the Swedish initiative, so serious efforts must be made to maximize the use of large amounts of resources.

Hark Kroll:

Instruct the Canadian ambassador to the DPRK to re-engage.

Support Canadian NGO activities in the DPRK.

Renew cultural exchanges and departmental support to Canadian NGOs, academic exchanges, and business endeavours.

Q: What talking points would you suggest for our meetings with Canadian parliamentarians?

Victor Hsu:

Canadian foreign affairs initiatives have been non-existent globally speaking. Is there no role any more for a middle power?

The DPRK issue remains one of the few hot spots that involve all the major powers. An enlightened Canadian initiative would give Canada’s reputation a prestigious boost. It would also further a much-needed exploration of the role of the broader international community beyond the narrow agenda of the 6-party talks. Canada may wish to enlist the EU, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil and Australia in helping to expand the necessary DPRK agenda.

Hark Kroll:

Follow the lead of our allies by reopening channels of communication to the DPRK.

We can promote change in the DPRK by making the cadres aware of a better way of doing things through courses in Canada and elsewhere. It’s a long-term project but it worked with China.

We can’t influence them if we don’t talk to them.

Q: What do we know about the current state of the DPRK?

Jeremy Paltiel, Department of Political Science, Carleton University, Ottawa:

The succession: At the formal level the succession has gone smoothly. Kim Jong Un has been anointed to the power positions of the military and the KWP. The power institutions of the state appear to be functioning normally with no evident interruption in the chain of command. However there are evident signs that his authority, and by implication, the authority of the Kim clan, is precarious. The reason for this is the departure, indeed the contradiction in the behaviour of Kim Jong Un as heir in contrast with that of his father, Kim Jong Il, when he succeeded Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Il observed a full 100 days of secluded mourning, and further an extraordinary three full years of Confucian withdrawal from public life to show his respect and his legitimacy according to Confucian custom.

Of course, given his deep engagement in the work of the party, military and government, Kim Jong Il continued to work behind the scenes politically away from the public eye. In the case of Kim Jong Un, the fact that he started to make ‘on the spot guidance’ to key military units and symbolic establishments within days of his father’s funeral shows that the Kim clan is more concerned about making a show of its own authority than demonstrating the legitimacy of Kim Jong Un’s succession. They do not trust the chain of command to obey without the visible presence of the Kim family heir at the pinnacle. Moreover, the smiling Kim Jong Un has abandoned all pretence of mourning, in sharp contradiction to the example set by his own father. His appearance apes the benevolent image of his grandfather, but his behaviour flouts the protocol that grants legitimacy to himself as his heir.

The end of 100 days of mourning nearly coincides with the centenary of the birth of Kim Il Sung. We should expect elaborate pageantry from the end of March leading up to the centenary on 15 April 2012.

Ideology: Kim Jong Un has reiterated the Songun ‘Army First’ ideology and exemplified it through patronage of key army units. At the same time Juche and socialism are effectively moribund.

The Economy: The DPRK today functions along a political economic model that is totally different from the one bequeathed by Kim Il Sung in 1994. The regime has abandoned an autarkic (closed, self sufficient) socialist planned economy in all but name. The DPRK is a rentier state, that depends on skimming the profits of variously shaded markets (black, grey and fading to white) through multiple schemes. The state effectively excludes the majority of the population from access to goods and food rationed by the state, and has shrunk to a core cadre of military and security personnel; managerial elites; workers in key defence related industrial enterprises; and political managers and their support staff. These are maintained through dependence on grants in aid from China, the proceeds of legal and illegal foreign trade, tourism and extortionate rents from the market activities that the majority of the population, especially farmers, depend on in order to survive.

As late as the failed currency reform some years ago Kim Jong Il may have maintained the illusion that he could turn the clock backwards and recreate the socialist planned economy with the state in charge of circulation and distribution. This illusion has been shattered forever and the only way that the state today even hopes to expand the resource base on which it depends is to expand market opportunities from which it can skim rents. The starkest example of this is the Orascom cell-phone joint venture, which is rapidly expanding and from which the state derives a substantial portion of its revenue, including foreign exchange. Subscribers pay Orascom contracts in Euros, despite the fact that dealing in foreign exchange remains under ban or under strict state control. China, which is the DPRK’s sole mainstay, has made it clear that it will only subsidize the state to a limited extent and expects it to derive revenues from investors, especially in the RaSon zone. The regime is forced to seek out new markets with all the political risk that entails.

Diplomacy: The news this week that DPRK and US negotiators will meet again in Beijing at the end of this month underscores the point I made above. The regime is desperate for revenue and is uncomfortable in its unilateral dependence on China. To break out of this it needs to improve relations with the US and the Republic of (South) Korea. At the same time the authority and competence of Kim Jong Un is in question so that the Kim clan dare not expose him to summit diplomacy. The fact that this year is a year of simultaneous leadership transition in China, South Korea and the US effectively insulates Kim Jong Un for a few months until he is ready for his diplomatic debut, possibly in 2013.

In the meantime, expect stalwarts like Kim Yong Nam to repeat longstanding talking points. I do not believe the regime or the military is prepared to risk any provocations in this period. Instead they may well welcome any interim steps that without backtracking on established positions, promise to open new possibilities for revenue. Humanitarian aid, if proffered, will be avidly, if not gratefully, accepted. They may even allow some humanitarian aid to be delivered directly to recipients so long as the bulk is distributed through state channels.

I believe the regime will welcome new gestures from South Korea as soon as a new administration is in place, regardless of who wins the election. This may take the form of expanding the Gaeson industrial zone and/or reopening Mt. Kumgang (Diamond Mountain) to South Korean tour groups. The key is finding a face-saving formula where Pyongyang stops short of a humiliating formal apology but expresses some sincere regret and makes concrete moves towards resolving the nuclear issue. Even the right-wing Pak Gyun-hae, whose mother was the victim of a DPRK assassination squad, may be willing to finesse something in the name of ‘flexibility’ in order to gain some initiative in relations with the North.

Q: How is humanitarian aid viewed from a human rights perspective?

Jack Kim, Special Advisor, HanVoice, Editor of CanKor “Human Factor” blog.

Humanitarian aid, especially vis-à-vis the DPRK, is becoming an increasingly difficult proposition to sell. One of the chief issues is that we don’t have the level of urgency that we had back in the 1990’s, when people were dying en masse. However, I can’t help but think that a) donors are now entering a “fatigue” stage where one wonders how long the international community is really going to rescue North Korea’s most vulnerable, and going hand in hand b) because the situation is not as urgent, aid has to a certain extent come with political strings, especially attached to questions of opportunity cost re: nuclear weapons and prison camps. To a certain extent, without some more transparency from the North Koreans themselves, donors are going to grow impatient with what has been a tunnel without any end when it comes to the humanitarian aid mission to the DPRK. I’m wondering if decision-makers are looking for some kind of ante from Pyongyang to solve this problem.

On that note, the humanitarian aid community has of course come under fire from human rights types who question how NGOs can operate in one of the worst human rights offenders on the planet. To a certain degree, there is a point. Aid should never be politicized – but if the reason you’re silent on human rights is access, then I think there are some pretty serious issues regarding that – not only on principle, which should be important (human rights, although inherently political, is not necessarily politicized), but also from a public relations point of view. On this point, aid groups need to be quite more transparent on the pitfalls of providing humanitarian aid to North Korea – aid groups need to be far more honest about the issues of diversion, and more importantly, opportunity cost and issues of “greater good.” How do we know that the dollar that is spent feeding a North Korean child is not a dollar that allows the regime to imprison another North Korean child in one of the kwanliso for another day? From a pure “balance of payments” point of view, how is that assisting the overall outlook for the DPRK as a whole?

Obviously, diversion is a key issue. This increasingly becomes a concern when non-perishable commodities (such as rice) are involved without verification as opposed to goods or services that are consumed in short periods (such as noodle factories, orphanages). Some goods obviously trickle down to the jangmadang, but unless we’re talking enormous volumes of aid trickling down, this actually only increases the overall price of goods in the markets, which is not good for the average North Korean Joe (or “Chul-soo” perhaps)

Studies have shown that the vast majority of people who leave North Korea are from the northern areas – how can we guarantee access to these areas so we can help the North Koreans build conditions so people don’t have to leave (assuming of course the North Koreans want to do this).

Speaking of the jangmadang, there has to be a way of incorporating this into the overall humanitarian aid framework. Call me a market capitalist, but the markets have only benefited the North Korean people by decreasing reliance upon the old PDS (which the new Kim Jong Un regime seems to be trying to revive). Increased food aid would give the North Koreans incentive to crack down on the jangmadang, which would not be a good thing to the average North Korean Chul-soo.

The question we have to ask ourselves is what is most effective in helping the North Koreans help themselves? There is no easy answer to this, but we have to move away from looking at the North Korean regime as the only funnel (or enabler) of humanitarian aid. One easy step is rather than dole out large, lump sum shipments (especially of easily divertable commodities as rice!), enable many smaller NGOs to penetrate and establish long-term permanent missions inside the country. I’m highly skeptical that the regime itself either has the willingness or even the technical expertise to get itself out of the humanitarian aid game – the only way North Korea is going to get itself out of this cycle is if the North Korean public itself is incorporated into the solution. The pipe dream would be playing whatever role is necessary to get North Korean civil society off the ground.

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