Issue 20 - Article 7

Manipulating humanitarian crisis in North Korea

April 3, 2002

An estimated 3.5 million North Koreans may have died from starvation and related illnesses between 1995 and 1998, and more than 8m – over a third of the population – are in need of food aid.

North Korea is in the midst of acute humanitarian crisis. Even with one of the largest allocations of food aid in the world – almost a million tonnes annually – famine will persist; many North Koreans subsist on roots and edible grasses. This crisis is unfolding within one of the world’s most secretive, closed and inaccessible states, with a regime that appears impervious to the terrible conditions in which the bulk of North Koreans live. In the face of complete economic collapse and virtually total international isolation, the regime continues to proclaim socialism’s imminent victory over the West, and to eulogise the near-mythical figure of its Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il.

Outsiders who manage to work in the country – for the most part humanitarians, UN employees and, exceptionally, a few journalists – are extremely discreet about what they see. For aid organisations, this silence is perhaps understandable: given the nature of the regime, keeping quiet is crucial if aid work is to continue. Yet this silence masks a deeper manipulation of the conditions in the country, whereby human need is used to conceal political agendas, both by the regime in Pyongyang and by the key outside powers with an interest in maintaining it.

Collusion and shadow plays

This manipulation is first of all North Korean. There is no doubt that the humanitarian crisis in the country is severe, and that the country has suffered a number of natural disasters in the shape of droughts and floods. Yet it is also clear that the regime has used these events as an excuse for the wider failings of the economy. The fundamental North Korean principle of juche, roughly translated as ‘self-sufficiency’, sits uneasily with the tonnes of rice sacks, stamped ‘Gift of the USA’, that are heaped on the dockside at the port of Nampo. This shadow play follows the same logic as another: imminent war. For half a century, the North has been on a war-footing for fear of imminent ‘capitalist’ attack. Thus, the regime justifies its paranoia, its obsession with security and its development of strategic weaponry, even while its people starve.

The international community has played its own part in these games. For the UN, for instance, it is far easier to convince donors to respond to an emergency caused by a natural catastrophe than to have to argue on the basis of real causes. Year after year, every hydrographic deficit is called an unprecedented drought, and every river that overflows causes exceptional flooding. After eight years of this little game, these statements no longer fool anyone, but everyone plays the game in order to allow the various actors to avoid the real issue, namely that the regime has failed. Everyone fully understands that the economic catastrophe suffocating this country has little to do with the climate and everything to do with the absurdity of the system; but everybody pretends that this is not the case.

So too the North’s apparent ‘security threat’. Why does the West sustain one of the world’s largest food aid operations in a country recently declared by President Bush to be part of an ‘axis of evil’? Why is the West propping up a ‘rogue’ regime, supposedly developing nuclear weapons and missiles that can reach Japan? Is it really fear that leads the West to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on North Korea? Some Russian diplomats slyly suggest that this situation mainly allows the US military to maintain an important presence in this key strategic zone, and also to keep its main allies in the area under pressure in the face of a potential enemy – China – whose military capacities are far more worrisome.

But there is also a more positive logic that leads the West to feed North Korea: a logic based on what has been called the ‘soft landing’ concept. The key idea is that maximising the country’s opening to ‘Western’ inputs can only favour a progressive metamorphosis of the system, an insidious corrosion of this iron regime, and thus help prevent a brutal and painful political collapse. Humanitarian organisations have no business judging such a political choice. But all the same, they must not allow themselves to be used to conceal the fact that such a choice is being made. It seems that there is no longer any political action in and of itself, and that political action can no longer produce its own legitimacy: it has to justify itself by donning the mask of humanitarian aid.

What of the UN?

The international community, in order to implement this strategy, has found a perfect tool in the UN system. If we believe that the aid brought to North Korea does not correspond to a clear humanitarian strategy, inasmuch as the most fragile populations cannot be clearly identified, what is left of the humanitarian mandate of agencies such as the WFP or UNICEF? Let us be clear: we are not arguing the political decision to engage the UN in North Korea. This engagement proceeds from a political analysis of the situation and aims to produce political effects: only later, when results are known, will it appear whether these political choices were pertinent or not. But questions need to be asked about the instrumentalisation of UN agencies, and about the confusion between political and humanitarian ideals that this instrumentalisation causes.

A concrete example of this gap between a humanitarian analysis of the North Korean crisis and a political approach can be seen in the methodology of the implementation of aid to North Korea. The UN agencies conduct massive food aid distributions, and claim that they are certain that the food they donate reaches the most vulnerable populations, because they can control the presence of this aid in the public structures tasked with distributing it. Even if we accept that thus far they are correct – though they have never been able to produce any proof of this – this still leaves the key point, and one that the UN has so far refused to engage with: that a large part of the population, by definition its most vulnerable members, are excluded from these state structures. In North Korea, access to public institutions in no way means access to the hungry. Some time ago, Action Contre la Faim (ACF) noted the astonishing gap between overall levels of severe malnutrition, which stood at 15%, and the 1% level found in the nurseries and kindergartens of North Hamgyong, the most stricken province we worked in. There are children dying of malnutrition in North Korea, but they are not in the institutions where all the international aid goes. This is why food aid programmes in North Korea are not highly publicised, and why the UN agencies do not seem keen to seek media attention.

Silence and morality

Between 1998 and 2000, ACF, like other agencies, limited its public declarations concerning the conditions under which humanitarian aid was being delivered in North Korea. As long as we could hope that, by sacrificing our role as witnesses, we could assist North Koreans where lives were at risk, we maintained this position. But such a silence becomes morally unjustifiable if it does not, in return, guarantee genuine access to these people. It is this realisation of failure that led a number of NGOs – MSF, MDM, CARE, Oxfam and ACF – to take the painful decision to withdraw from North Korea. For ACF, such a difficult decision necessarily had to go hand in hand with a public debate with the international community; we therefore launched discussions both with the UN and the NGOs that have remained in North Korea, without, we have to admit, seeing any tangible results as far as the logic of international aid programmes in North Korea is concerned. Those organisations still working in North Korea have decided to remain silent, a decision based on a belief in the regime’s willingness to change and on a perception of significant progress in the way agencies are allowed to work. A genuine debate must take place on this subject, but the UN agencies in particular have avoided this for far too long. Everyone benefits from the silence imposed on the crisis in North Korea – except the North Korean people. At a time when the UN is apologising for its ‘failure’ during the Rwandan genocide, its ‘inaction’ in Bosnia and its ‘lack of foresight’ in East Timor, is it already formulating expressions of regret for its ‘blindness’ in North Korea?

Jean-Fabrice Piétriis Asia Desk Officer, Action Contre la Faim.

References and further reading

Helen-Louise Hunter and Stephen J. Solarz, Kim Il-song’s North Korea (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999).

David Reese, The Prospects for North Korea’s Survival, Adelphi Paper 323 (Oxford: OUP for the IISS, 1998).

Kong Dan Oh and Ralph C. Hassig, Korea Through the Looking Glass (Washington DC: Brookings, 2000).

Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

Korean Central News Agency (KCNA):


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