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 »

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 »

A Monk’s Earthly Mission: Easing North Koreans’ Pain, by Choe Sang-Hun

[I have known the Ven. Pomnyun for more than a dozen years. We meet infrequently on my trips to Seoul. He is one of the rare people who has made the transition from human rights struggles in South Korea to human rights struggles for the North Korean people. He is also one of the rare examples of a human rights-minded activist who sees human rights as much more than civil and political rights. For Pomnyun and the “Good Friends” organization that he founded, the current price of rice in North Korea’s markets is as important as the current number of prisoners in North Korea’s labour camps. Economic, social and cultural rights occupy a large part of his agenda, which also means that Pomnyun has tirelessly promoted humanitarian assistance to North Korea, despite concerns about monitoring its distribution. Although the information collected by his organization is not always the most reliable, it does provide informal and localized indicators of change, for example in the food supply of villages and counties outside urban areas. We were pleased to see this article about Pomnyun, authored by Choe Sang-Hun, in the New York Times on 27 April 2012, and offer it here for our readers. –EW, CanKor]

South Korean Buddhist monk Venerable Pomnyun in his office at Peace Foundation in Seoul. (Photo by Woohae Cho, The International Herald Tribune)

In August 1996, the Venerable Pomnyun, a Buddhist monk from South Korea, was cruising down the Yalu River between China and North Korea when he saw a boy squatting alone at the North Korean edge of the water. The boy was in rags, his gaunt face covered in dirt.

Pomnyun shouted to him, but the boy did not respond. Pomnyun’s Chinese companion explained that North Korean children were instructed never to beg from foreigners. And when Pomnyun asked if the boat could be steered closer to the child to bring help, he was reminded that they could not enter North Korean territory.

“Never before had I realized the meaning of a border so painfully until that day,” said Pomnyun, 59. “Never before had I felt so acutely that Korea is a divided nation.” Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Ottawa Round Table Part 3 – Canada-DPRK Bilateral Relations by Hartmuth Kroll

Canada-North Korea Bilateral Relations

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

Background

  • Crossed flag pin by Promex GmbH

    Without belabouring the point, the Asia Pacific region matters to Canada, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) has long been a destabilizing element in the region.

  • In February 2001, with the support and encouragement of its regional allies. Canada established diplomatic relations with the DPRK.
  • This initiative reflected the view that, over the long term, engagement offered the best prospects for integrating North Korea into the international community of nations.
  • Long-term goals for engagement included full denuclearization, improved governance and political reform, improved human rights and enhanced regional security. Nonetheless, there were few illusions as to what could be achieved immediately. 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 »

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