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North Korea Gets NGO Religion

By Scott Snyder | December 11, 2007

CREDIT: Thawley (CC).

The North Korean famine of the mid-1990s stimulated an unprecedented appeal by the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) for international humanitarian assistance. The international community answered this call, both through contributions by donor governments to the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and other international relief agencies, and through private donations from humanitarian NGOs invited to work in North Korea for the first time. This posed challenging ethical and humanitarian dilemmas for foreign aid workers who responded to the crisis. It also yielded a paradox: Despite the antipathy of the North Korean system to outside religious influence, it is primarily American NGOs with financial backing from religious organizations that have maintained development and exchange programs with the DPRK.

While other NGO programs have largely dried up, the relationship between DPRK authorities and American religiously funded NGOs has continued despite recovery from the famine and the advent of an international diplomatic crisis surrounding North Korea's nuclear weapons development.

Responding to Crisis

North Korea proved to be a quite different environment from that of most complex humanitarian emergencies. Although the economic system had collapsed, North Korea's political system remained intact. DPRK political authorities worked with international aid agencies to provide food inputs to its ration-based Public Distribution System, but strongly resisted international monitoring efforts designed to ensure that the food was being delivered to the end user. This led to the charge, as reported in the West, that an excessive amount of food was being siphoned off for military rather than civilian use.

International and UN aid agencies chafed at this and other restrictions under which they operated, which were far different from what they usually encountered. By 1998, four European aid agencies (Médecins du Monde, Médecins Sans Frontières, Action Contre la Faim, and Oxfam International) chose to withdraw from the country, arguing that there was no "humanitarian space" for operation in the DPRK.

The efforts of American NGOs were also hampered by severe political restrictions that were not faced to the same degree by their European or South Korean counterparts. North Korea was the target of strict economic sanctions under the U.S. Trading With the Enemy Act, which had remained in place since the Korean War, limiting the amount and types of government support available to American NGOs. The North Korean side was especially wary that an American NGO presence in North Korea could be used as the leading edge of U.S. infiltration or intelligence-gathering efforts. Because of these restrictions, negotiations over the delivery of humanitarian aid to North Korea via NGO channels became a subject of political discussion at the government-to-government level, as a result of which food assistance also became tied to some degree to U.S. government concerns about North Korea's nuclear development efforts. At the height of the food crisis in 1997 and 1998, the DPRK insisted on U.S. food assistance as a precondition for its participation in four-party talks on the nuclear issue, and as a quid pro quo the United States insisted on inspection of a suspect nuclear site near the village of Kumchang-ri.

As a result of these restrictions, the vast majority of American food assistance to North Korea was provided through the WFP. Despite the best efforts of international NGOs to improve conditions for humanitarian service to the DPRK and enhance NGO involvement, the prospects for American NGOs in particular to sustain aid to DPRK remained extremely limited without U.S. government support.

Taking a Different Tack

Apart from U.S. government–funded food assistance to North Korea, a few American NGOs, almost all of which are funded by religious organizations or private donations, also began work in North Korea as part of the international response to the nation's food crisis. Four American NGOs that continue their operations in North Korea with religious funding but with differing backgrounds and motivations are the American Friends Service Committee, the Eugene Bell Foundation, Christian Friends of Korea, and Global Resource Services. While these NGOs were insignificant in providing major food assistance in response to the crisis, they instead established development projects in the fields of agriculture, education, and health that outlasted the efforts of other NGOs that focused on the immediate humanitarian need. Although these NGOs faced the same challenges and often worked with the same North Korean counterparts from the Flood Damage and Rehabilitation Committee, their presence has proved to be sustainable in North Korea.

All of these NGOs are still operating projects in the North despite the end of the food crisis and the ramping up of tensions over the North Korean nuclear program; and all of these programs continue with the awareness by DPRK counterparts that they are religiously backed, despite the hostility that the DPRK government has maintained toward religious practices among its citizens.

Strange Partners?

Why have these particular activities survived while some NGOs pulled out on ethical grounds and still others left as a result of the financial constraints imposed by the poor U.S.-DPRK bilateral relationship?

One over-arching factor has been the focus of religiously funded NGOs on maintaining relationships through regular exchanges. The placing of personal relationships above political concerns, coupled with an independent revenue source, has served to insulate their programs from official tensions over political issues.

Another distinguishing factor of these programs is that they were relatively quick to move past humanitarian aid, with its emphasis on monitoring and transparency, to development programs that required joint cooperation and the maintenance of annual visits, which in and of themselves could be justified on the basis of cooperation rather than on an adversarial basis. The ongoing needs of the local farms or hospitals with which these American NGOs had established relationships served both to justify repeated visits to the same places inside North Korea and to provide opportunities to verify that shipments had been received. The orientation of these projects as joint development projects, their multiyear support at an institutional level, and the type of cooperation necessary to sustain these projects have all served to mitigate adversarial approaches or demands for monitoring.

Still another reason for the success of these NGOs is that they tended to focus on particularly nonsensitive areas, or even to respond to specific requests made by the North Korean side, and they tried to justify the expansion of their projects or the development of new projects based on practical needs inside the country. In the course of working cooperatively on specific issues, it was possible for these NGOs to learn more about the working environment and traditional practices within Korea, whereas those efforts that have led with requests for feasibility studies or local surveys have generally been greeted with greater suspicion and/or disinterest by authorities. Having earned a reputation for delivering on promised assistance, these organizations came to be viewed by North Korean counterparts as reliable. Furthermore, especially in the early years of their operations, these NGOs honored North Korean sensitivities regarding media reports about the country, limiting outside publicity surrounding their efforts and containing negative observations regarding conditions on the ground.

In certain areas the focus on cooperation and relationship building has served to overcome some initial suspicions or to bend DPRK rules with regard to outside organizations. For instance, Global Resource Services, Christian Friends of Korea, and the Eugene Bell Foundation all employ fluent Korean speakers in primary roles, despite long-standing North Korean objections to such workers from international agencies. During the course of field visits and joint projects all the organizations have had extensive contacts with individual North Koreans, including tuberculosis patients, although the government still prefers to direct contact through institutional cooperation and not through programs that result in extensive interactions with patients or end users.

This is not to suggest that the government has relaxed its security toward these NGOs altogether. In each case it still assigns representatives to accompany the groups in-country, although the nature of the relationships is not necessarily adversarial, and in some cases they have developed quite cordially to the point where those with public security functions play positive roles in promoting, or providing political cover for improving, the effectiveness of the NGO programs.

At the same time, there remains sensitivity to any Western curiosity directed at areas unrelated to the work at hand. Needless to say, North Korean officials expect religious NGO representatives to leave their religion at the door and not try to propagate their beliefs inside North Korea, even though the key interlocutors themselves are aware that the assistance by many donors to these organizations is religiously motivated. There are also clear limits on the growth of programs beyond the specific specialized areas where these NGOs are working; this almost certainly requires high-level approval, which can take considerable time and effort through a process that is far from transparent.

Perhaps most interesting is that North Korean officials seem most comfortable with these NGOs as partners in development, suggesting that the government would welcome an expansion of NGO efforts to assist North Korea. Thus far, the content of the assistance desired remains heavily focused on "hardware," or technical assistance, rather than "software," or training, with a particularly vigilant watch kept on ideological correctness, given the suspicion with which North Korean authorities view religion as a subversive element. But if political tensions subside and restrictions on the types of activities that can take place in North Korea fall away, these organizations will already have a significant foot in the door, and will be well positioned to enlarge and expand their activities.

For instance, several of the NGOs listed above have been short-listed as possible conduits via which USAID might provide energy assistance under the latest six-party agreement on the denuclearization of North Korea. Certainly, these groups have the advantage of ongoing experience and relationships, and may be poised to play a disproportionate role in the next phase of dealing with North Korea. Whether such opportunities may raise new moral and ethical questions for religiously funded NGOs or the broader community will depend in part on how politics develops inside North Korea (that is, is it possible that work with religiously based NGO counterparts might become politicized?), and particularly on how the North Korean leadership positions itself in managing NGO-led external interactions based on its experience thus far. Time alone will tell.

A longer version of this article appeared in the Carnegie Council's Ethics & International Affairs journal as "American Religious NGOs in North Korea: A Paradoxical Relationship."

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Read More: Agriculture, Aid, Development, Education, Energy, Health, Religion, Security, Korea (North), Korea (South), United States, Americas, Asia, Charity, Diplomacy, Europe

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