Small Fish in a Deep Dark Sea: NGOs’ Response in North Korea
by Lola Nathanail November 1996

Lola Nathanail, of Save the Children Fund UK, was seconded to the United Nations’ World Food Programme to conduct an asessment of the food and nutrition situation in North Korea (in March/April 1996). The opinions expressed in this article are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the two organisations.

[NB: The term NGO is used here without due regard to the enormous differences that exist between humanitarian agencies. Agendas, capacities and competence vary enormously. The paper simply presents a generalised picture of ‘NGOs’, with the full knowledge this may bear little resemblance to some agencies’ reality.]

North Korea’s historical record will, in years to come, feature a small turning point: the “1995 Flood Emergency”. Of course, when compared to other key episodes in the same century – the end of Japanese rule in 1945; the respective roles of USSR and USA in the North and South of the peninsula until the end of the 1940s; or the Korean war in the 1950s, 1995 will seem a small turning point indeed.


But what exactly did turn (or begin to crack at least)? A mind-set, or rather, a political ideology which had, until then, demanded self-sufficiency at all costs – Juche! The “1995 Flood Emergency” opened the remarkable possibility of a trickle of western humanitarian relief – at the request of the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Food aid (from rice to tinned fruit salad) arrived by train, truck or tanker from Hong Kong, USA, Japan, Italy, Syria, UK, Switzerland.

However, the ‘flood emergency relief effort’ was carried out in a context of highly charged political imperatives and economic conditionalities. Donor governments’ concern was not unconditional – most importantly, they sought the political kow-towing of the DPRK government to other nations, including the USA and southern Korea Republic with whom the DPRK is still officially at war. Failing that, the only possibility for leverage was a disaster, an emergency.

A humanitarian crisis could be used to facilitate entry, to overcome the political obstacles, and allow donor governments a foot in the door. Yes, help to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people would be given; but a crisis would also offer the opportunity of exerting pressure to widen any cracks in the Pyongyang regime and speed up the process of political change.

Politics were paramount. Instead of acknowledging that reality and placing their efforts in a perspective, aid agencies chose to ignore it – at least in public. The donor government agenda seemed to drive all other thinking – NGOs and UN both – rather than the other way around.

NGOs needed an emergency as this would greatly enhance the likelihood of funding. And so they embarked on a mad scramble to ‘get in there’, to be one of a very privileged few who had been permitted entry into the last remaining bastion of Stalinism. It verged on voyeurism; the prime concern was to get there (even for only a few days), never mind what was achieved/achievable in that time. One NGO was so intent on entering the DPRK that it effectively bought entry visas with food aid.

Food aid was the major preoccupation, for DPRK Government and UN/NGOs alike. The Government was interested in maximising donations while minimising the presence/influence of agencies. To a certain extent, NGOs were happy to go along with that – donations were made through the Red Cross, World Food Programme of the UN or the Ministry of Food Administration and little operational/advisory presence was sought or permitted. The constraints to working in the DPRK were enormous, not least because UN/NGOs had to liaise with a Government which simply had no experience of dealing with international agencies. For example, the role of DHA was a source of confusion and mystery for government authorities up to and beyond the second consolidated appeal!

NGOs occupied themselves with cursory visits, organising donations (of food, as well as clothes and medical supplies), rebuilding some of the houses that had been washed away, and some wishing to maximise the profile gained. Eye-witness accounts of the emergency formed the focus of media coverage of events in the DPRK, my own included. Where was the analysis?

There were organisations who, having had a presence in the DPRK prior to the floods, were in a potentially powerful position to pursue a course of action informed by better understanding of the context. But they didn’t; some NGOs allowed themselves to be led along by the hype and propaganda being fed them (by DPRK Government, donors, media etc), presumably for fear of losing the trust and working relations that had previously been established with the local authorities.

Yet reality, as far as it is possible for an outsider such as myself to comment, was much more complex. The food deficit of 1995/1996 had root causes way beyond the 1995 floods and the crop and food stock damage which resulted. The national economy, with agriculture at its core, has been in slow decline for a number of years. Trade has been diminishing as a result of the country’s poor credit reputation and fuel shortages have impeded industrial production and thus reduced the availability of export commodities. The DPRK has been experiencing a structural crisis, and the 1995 floods served only to exacerbate this already fragile state.

Was it a missed opportunity? Could NGOs have done more? I think the answer is yes, even allowing for the serious constraints posed by the authorities in Pyongyang. Where was the analytical thinking, the careful consideration of opportunities and priorities for effective intervention in the DPRK? Where was the balance between pragmatic action and advocacy? If it existed, it was well hidden. An opportunity was missed for NGOs to demonstrate a more careful response to the DPRK’s current needs in a longer-term context.

Few pursued any line which extended beyond needs in 1995/96. And few pursued any line which was not being pulled by the lure of grants and fundable projects. An opportunity was missed to exercise independent thinking with a view to more effective and appropriate action.

There was also a missed opportunity of NGOs coming together to speak with a coherent and informed (as far as that is possible in the DPRK) voice. The competition over speed, entry visas and profile seemed to take over NGO agendas and the rapport that can emerge during new emergencies seemed absent.

And what of my own efforts – an NGO worker asked to offer technical support to a UN agency in assessing the food and nutrition situation? I attempted to present an analysis of the current shortages in a longer-term context, trying to describe the evolution of the deteriorating food security situation of the country over the last ten or so years.

My appeal was for an understanding of the process rather than simply the outcome, because, I argued, the conditions seen in 1995/96 were not the final outcome. The situation would deteriorate further over the next few years unless concerted effort was made to support the flailing economy. But nobody wanted to hear that.

My argument didn’t fit with the political imperative of emergency/humanitarian response. Governments weren’t ready to offer structural, bilateral support to a regime it didn’t trust – and that was that.

The case of NGO efforts in North Korea is a microcosm of, I think, NGOs’ role in development globally. NGOs did (and are doing) what they could, but that barely scratched the surface of the real needs of the country. In a context of political isolation from much of the rest of the world, economic stagnation and commercial alienation, small-scale contributions of basic food commodities to relieve the current food gap were important, but not enough. That is why it was vital to ensure that NGOs exerted pressure on donors to acknowledge the economic crisis that is slowly but unremittingly engulfing the DPRK. The food crisis was a structural one, not one caused by the flood emergency. Yet, little was said and even less was heard.

We (NGOs) have a responsibility to be more than just proxies for donor government agendas; and we have a responsibility of making sure we understand the wider context in which we are operating.

We are moving in a dangerous direction of ‘short-termism’ whereby concerns about self-preservation are seemingly overriding, or at least taking on equal importance to, local needs – particularly longer-term needs. We are perilously close to selling out altogether. If that happens, the development debate will have lost one important voice – that of the independent humanitarian NGO.