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 »
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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 »

Has starvation become a foreign diplomacy tool?

[The Oregonian journalist Richard Read speaks to relief managers from Mercy Corps and Samaritan’s Purse, who claim that the Obama administration has abandoned Ronald Reagan’s “hungry-child policy” that separated food aid from politics. Read’s article, reproduced below, first appeared in OregonLive.com on 13 April 2013. –CanKor]

Relief managers from Portland-based Mercy Corps say U.S. let North Koreans starve as retribution for missile launch

By Richard Read, The Oregonian, updated April 13, 2013 at 10:55 PM
A North Korean mother lies with her acutely malnourished son, plagued by sores, at a county hospital in September 2011. (Photo by Jim White, Mercy Corps)

A North Korean mother lies with her acutely malnourished son, plagued by sores, at a county hospital in September 2011. (Photo by Jim White, Mercy Corps)

A 3-year-old girl weighed less than 16 pounds, surviving on saline solution and ground rice. Babies lay passively, too weak to cry. Relief workers saw stunted and wasted children languishing in unheated hospitals amid floods and reduced rations during an unusually harsh winter.

That was two years ago. Portland-based Mercy Corps and four other humanitarian organizations given rare access to North Korea warned: “a catastrophic situation is developing.” After a year of prodding, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced 120,000 metric tons of food for North Korea.

But food never reached hungry Koreans. The Obama administration let political distrust, instead of need, dictate food policy.

Communication and good will broke down, leaving White House officials little to draw on today as Pyongyang ratchets up threats of nuclear attack. Read the rest of this entry »

Will Seoul engage North Korea soon? by Chung Min-uck

[Korea Times correspondent Chung Min-uck interviews CanKor Brain Trust member Victor Hsu, Director of International Aid and Education at the South Korean state-run Korea Development Institute (KDI), and Bernhard Seliger, a Seoul resident representative of the Hanns Seidel Foundation, a German organization active in Korea. The two experts applaud the new South Korean President’s “trustpolitik”, and point out that the Park Geun-hye government still has opportunities to carry out a fundamental shift from the current ever-escalating inter-Korean tension. –CanKor]

Trucks loaded with flour as relief aid to North Korea pass a checkpoint on a bridge over the Imjin River in the South Korean border city of Paju, Gyeonggi Province, in this Sept. 21, 2012, file photo. The Seoul government sent 500 tons of flour to the impoverished North in one of the lastest aid supplies under the previous Lee Myung-bak administration. (Photo by Korea Times)

Trucks loaded with flour as relief aid to North Korea pass a checkpoint on a bridge over the Imjin River in the South Korean border city of Paju, Gyeonggi Province, in this Sept. 21, 2012, file photo. The Seoul government sent 500 tons of flour to the impoverished North in one of the lastest aid supplies under the previous Lee Myung-bak administration. (Photo by Korea Times)

The government last week approved a shipment of humanitarian aid to North Korea, the first aid package approved under President Park Geun-hye, who took office on Feb. 25.

Under the approval, the Eugene Bell Foundation, a South Korean charity group, will ship tuberculosis medicine worth 678 million won (US $605,454) to eight tuberculosis clinics run by the South Korean group in North Korea as early as next month.

The latest gesture comes at a time when inter-Korean relations have hit rock bottom with the North threatening to use its nuclear weapons against South Korea and the United States, and in response, the two allies’ militaries signing a combined operational plan to raise deterrence against possible military threats by the North.

Although the unification ministry denied any political implications to the latest aid approval, referring to the move as being for “strictly humanitarian purposes,” foreign experts say such a symbolic gesture will help improve ties with the North.

“The amount is so little given the nature of the disease. It is a drop in the bucket,” said Victor Hsu, director of International Aid and Education at the state-run Korea Development Institute (KDI). “But the symbolic meaning I think is important. The symbolism of allowing the Eugene Bell Foundation to implement (aid shipments) is constructive in re-building inter-Korean relations.” Read the rest of this entry »

Update on First Steps activities, by Susan Ritchie

[First Steps is a Vancouver-based Christian development organization whose primary purpose is preventing child malnutrition in North Korea through programs that provide essential nutrients to young children. Its founding director Susan Ritchie recently returned from a visit to the DPRK and sent us this report. For more on First Steps and Ms Ritchie, see the Chosun Ilbo article “Canadian Who Became ‘Mother’ to N.Korean Orphans”. –CanKor]

First Steps founding director Susan Ritchie explains her charity's activities in North Korea while showing a picture taken in a factory she visited there. (Photo by Chosun Ilbo)

First Steps founding director Susan Ritchie explains her charity’s activities in North Korea while showing a picture taken in a factory she visited there. (Photo by Chosun Ilbo)

First Steps currently has two programs. First Steps’ soymilk program is currently reaching more than 90,000 children with a daily cup of soymilk. The micro -nutrient Sprinkles program is reaching approx. 70,000 pregnant women and babies from 6 – 24 months. Sprinkles prevent anemia and reduce morbidity (for example, deaths from diarrhea and pneumonia as well as rickets, etc.). As in-kind donations are becoming more available we are increasingly able to engage in relief work when there is a need.

We are shipping 3 larger food processing units to Wonsan in the coming weeks and expect that the total number of FS soymilk beneficiaries will soon exceed 100,000 children. The FS soymilk plants are working exceptionally well in the cities, counties and farms where we work. The food processing equipment that we send is a good fit for NK. Last year we shipped 280 metric tonnes of soybeans to supplement the local supply. We currently have 75 tonnes of soys en route.

I mentioned Deokchon in our last newsletter. It’s a city of 250,000 people, almost all of whom are engaged in mining coal (400 metres underground) or relevant activities to feed the coal plant in Pyongyang. We first visited the area after they had suffered a landside that took 46 lives and left more than 8,000 people homeless last summer. We partnered with ShelterBox to send in tents and then we sent in a 20′ container of relief foods for the children. Last week we visited the city again to confirm the arrival of the food, etc. Read the rest of this entry »

Is “Vaccine Diplomacy” the Right Prescription for the Korean Peninsula? By Jaclyn Schiff

[The following article appeared in UN Dispatch, a site that provides commentary and coverage on the United Nations and issues related to the work of the UN. In this piece from 25 January 2013, Jaclyn Schiff consults a number of experts, including CanKor Brain Trust member Victor Hsu, on the feasibility of “vaccine diplomacy”, an idea proposed in the LA Times by Dr. Peter Hotez. President and director of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, Hotez is also dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and fellow in disease and poverty at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. –CanKor]

Peter J. Hotez (Photo by Agapito Sanchez Jr., BCM Public Affairs)

Peter J. Hotez (Photo by Agapito Sanchez Jr., BCM Public Affairs)

In an op-ed, published Thursday in the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, suggests that “vaccine diplomacy” could improve relations between North Korea and South Korea.

From joint neglected tropical disease (NTD) treatment efforts to scientific alliances, Hotez argues that it could be “a breakout year for science and vaccine diplomacy to reduce the disease burden on the Korean peninsula and promote an unprecedented level of scientific collaboration.”

But according to experts who study the region, Hotez’s vision may be a long shot.

“DPRK is extremely distrustful and unlikely willing to expose themselves to lethal transmissible diseases in the name of science or anything else,” says Roger Cavazos, an associate at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, which is based in Berkeley, California. Read the rest of this entry »

Agricultural Reform Again—or Not? by Randall Ireson

[CanKor Brain Trust member Randall Ireson published the following article in our partner-site 38North. Mr. Ireson previously spent over a decade working for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), managing an agricultural project on several North Korean farms. His numerous on-site visits to the country’s Co-operative  farms have made him one of the foremost experts on agriculture in the DPRK. –CanKor]

Beginning in early July, a variety of sources have reported possible changes in DPRK farm policy, especially with regard to the organization of work teams and the share of produce which farms can retain. Information is rather spotty and inconsistent so far, and even if the government has decided to implement policy changes on a large scale, it is uncertain if they would actually lead to improved food production. The central question is whether DPRK authorities are interested in creating conditions that genuinely support farm development, or whether they are just trying to manipulate a few select policy elements without addressing any of the fundamental institutional obstacles to economic growth.

DPRK farm scene (Photo by E.Weingartner)

DPRK farm scene (Photo by E.Weingartner)

One of the earliest reports [1] outlined the main elements of what is being referred to as the “6.28 Policy,” or more formally as the “June 28 New Economic Management Measures.” These measures are:

  • Sub-work teams at the farms will be reduced to 4-6 persons;
  • The state will collect 70 percent of the production quota and the farm will keep 30 percent;
  • The farm can keep any production above the established quota;
  • Produce retained by the farm can be sold in the market at free-market prices; and
  • Private investment in production is allowed if under the auspices of state or cooperative enterprises. Read the rest of this entry »
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