Biting the hand that feeds it
Brad Glosserman (Director of Research at Pacific Forum CSIS)
(This article originally appeared in the September 9, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher)
At some point, the negotiations over North Korea will get down to business. When they do, the work will focus on constructing the "grand bargain" that swaps the regime's nuclear and missile programmes for economic and energy assistance, and security guarantees.
Negotiations will be difficult, but they are likely to be kid's stuff compared to the task of ensuring North Korea complies with the deal. After the experience of the last decade, no one is even going to consider trusting the North. An intrusive infrastructure will be set up to see that the nuclear programme is completely, irreversibly and verifiably dismantled. While that effort will be unprecedented, there is some history that might prove helpful. Unfortunately, it offers troubling insights into how North Korea will respond.
A study by Scott Snyder and Gordon Flake, two long-time Korea watchers, details the difficulties that NGOs have encountered in North Korea. Those efforts to help feed North Korea are a catalogue of frustration. Although famine has claimed between 600,000 and one million people out of a population of 22 million - and food aid has become essential to North Korea's survival, the government has made every effort to impede assistance programmes.
Convinced that NGOs were a "trojan horse intent on destroying the North Korean regime or intelligence-gathering tools of the US intelligence community", officials did everything possible to isolate employees. Korean speakers were not allowed to work in the country. Local contacts were regularly shuffled to frustrate attempts to build personal relationships. Non-governmental organisations usually were not allowed to establish local offices in North Korea, and visas were given only for short stays. Bad news was suppressed: the results of the 1998 nutrition survey were so embarrassing that the government refused to allow any more.
There is also the unique North Korean mentality. While non-governmental organisations provide aid, they focus on fixing systemic failures. In other words, they adhere to the philosophy of "teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime". But, as Mr Flake points out: "North Koreans insisted not only that they knew how to fish, but that Kim Il-sung invented fishing."
The experiences detailed in the study, entitled 'Paved with Good Intentions', are pretty uniform: American, South Korean and European NGOs all hit the same obstacles. They can be forgiven for being confused. They usually work in countries where order has collapsed and the state is pretty much nonexistent.
In North Korea, they have to contend with a government that is doing its best to assert itself. As a result, the North Koreans have turned former allies into opponents of the regime. The strict controls have contributed to donor fatigue, galvanised human rights groups and alerted the world to the North's bloody-mindedness. The NGO record is proof that in North Korea, politics and humanitarian issues are hopelessly intertwined.
That is not an encouraging note as the world ponders long-term, sustained and deep engagement with North Korea in the context of a "grand bargain". It is also a sobering reminder for those who cling to hopes that "engagement" may moderate the regime's behaviour.
Peter Hayes, of the California-based Nautilus Institute, cautions against painting too dismal a picture. Nautilus has enjoyed real co-operation in its Village Wind Power Pilot Project, the first NGO programme to move beyond food aid. Nautilus has installed seven wind turbine towers that provide energy to a small village in North Korea, powering a school and a clinic. Dr Hayes says the project demonstrates North Korea's willingness to conform to international standards of development assistance. He warns that many assessments of North Korea are politically motivated and calls for more nuance and sensitivity when evaluating its behaviour.
Mr Snyder concedes that it is easy to be sucked into the politics of North Korean aid. He should know: as Seoul representative of the Asia Foundation, which has provided about one-third of the English books in North Korea and supports other projects, he has experienced at first hand the frustrations of dealing with the regime. He remains convinced that good intentions are not enough, noting that North Korea's behaviour has turned organisations that should be friends into its most implacable opponents.