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 »

Remembering the RAC, by Justin Rohrlich

[CanKor Editor Erich Weingartner talks to New York City based journalist Justin Rohrlich about the early days of the RAC, an expatriate bar and social club that attained a surprisingly worldwide reputation as a must-visit venue for foreign visitors in Pyongyang. This article was published on 23 April 2013 in NKNews.org. –CanKor]

Remembering North Korea’s ‘Random Access Club’

Canadian Erich Weingartner recounts how he helped set up an exclusive foreigner only bar in Pyongyang

“This was the T-shirt we produced back then,” Weingartner says. “Don’t know if it was ever repeated. As you can see, no reference to ‘Random Access Club,’ haha. On the back of the shirt were the names of the agencies, both UN and NGO who were resident in North Korea at that time. 20 in all.”

“This was the T-shirt we produced back then,” Weingartner says. “As you can see, no reference to ‘Random Access Club,’ haha. On the back of the shirt were the names of the agencies, both UN and NGO, that were resident in North Korea at that time. 20 in all.”

Mirroring the experience of other expats that have lived in North Korea, Erich Weingartner says that when he arrived in Pyongyang in 1997 to head the Food Liaison Unit, a division of the UN World Food Programme, “there was literally nothing for foreigners to do” outside the Munsudong compound within which virtually all of them reside while in-country.

“In those days, they had a bowling alley, which still exists, and we used — we had our daughter’s birthday party there,” Weingartner tells me. “They had a couple of amusement parks in the city; there were some classical concerts you could go to; they had a zoo. I never went, it was apparently pretty sad to see the animals there, but it was available. Other than that, we mostly played volleyball and soccer and so on in the diplomatic compound.”

“The Russians had more access, for example, to a golf course, occasionally some hunting,” he remembers. “They’ve been there so long and have such a huge embassy, they have extra privileges in certain areas.”

But even though Weingartner, now Editor-in-Chief of CanKor, an Ontario-based initiative “seeking rational North Korea policy,” managed to obtain a North Korean driver’s license (the saga involved an interpreter who “sweetened” Weingartner’s incorrect answers to ensure he passed the oral portion of the exam and a road test that tested his ability to drive up a winding hill and halfway into a circular driveway, then back down to the bottom of the hill in reverse), his movements were still restricted. Read the rest of this entry »

Nightlife in Pyongyang, by Justin Rohrlich

[CanKor Editor Erich Weingartner and Brain Trust member Kathi Zellweger were among former residents and frequent visitors to North Korea that were interviewed by a New York City based journalist Justin Rohrlich about nightlife in North Korea. The resulting article was published on 19 April 2013 in NKNews.org. The full text, with NKNews photo, follows. –CanKor]

North Korea’s Nightlife Scene: The Pyongyang Perspective

Justin Rohrlich speaks to former residents and regular visitors to learn more about nightlife in North Korea

Pyongyang-NightlifeThough it sounds like the start of a bad joke, North Korea does, indeed, have a nightlife.

“It’s not just going to rallies,” says Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based travel outfitter specializing in North Korea. “There is such a thing as leisure time, at least for people in Pyongyang and in certain other parts of the country. North Koreans are not the Taliban; they do things that most westerners can relate to: having too many drinks, having a singsong, having a night out — these types of things do occur.”

A night on the town wasn’t always so easy for Pyongyangites — or the 200 or so resident foreigners living there; diplomats, aid workers, and the odd European or Asian investor. Read the rest of this entry »

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? Read the rest of this entry »

My First Monitoring Trip

This is the third episode in a series by Erich Weingartner, recounting his days as the founding Head of the Food Aid Liason Unit (FALU), an independent section of the United Nations World Food Program, from 1997-1999. All photos are by Erich Weingartner. Previous episodes were “My Bumpy Road to Pyongyang” and “My Introduction to Nampo Port.”

DPRK Kindergarten

“It’s all a matter of perception, you know,” Naresh answered with a knowing smile. “Reality is just an illusion.”

I had asked my Bangladeshi colleague Naresh Talukder how we were going to verify that what we would see was real. We were in a WFP vehicle barreling at top speed along a paved, almost completely empty superhighway, heading south from Pyongyang. My eyes were glued to the road as I conversed with him. This was my first monitoring trip. My heart was still in a rush of excitement, trying to grasp the reality of exploring a hidden corner of our globe that few foreign eyes had seen.

“Sounds a bit too Hindu for my taste,” I quipped.

“Not all Bangladeshis are Muslims, you know.” He was looking for something in his briefcase. “You Westerners are far too concerned with facts and figures, imagining that this is the way to harness reality.” Read the rest of this entry »

CanKor Brain Trust Members Interviewed on Radio Canada International

[CanKor Brain Trust member Charles Burton and Editor-in-Chief Erich Weingartner were interviewed by Radio Canada International’s columnist Lynn Desjardins about the recent US-DPRK agreement. Clicking on the image below will take you to the RCI website, where the interviews can be heard. –CanKor]

Radio Canada International, 1 March 2012

Canadian analysts wary of North Korean promise to suspend its nuclear programme

In a new deal with the United States, North Korea has agreed to suspend its nuclear activities in exchange for food aid. But Canadian analysts warn against reading too much into the new agreement. The Link’s Lynn Desjardins tells us what might or might not work to change the situation in North Korea.

Click on image to listen.

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