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Matthew McGrath (@mattmcgr) is a Seoul based contributor for NK News.
SEOUL – A change in the political climate in the United States played a role in the breakdown of development projects in the DPRK following the famine of the mid-1990s, a United Nations representative says.
As UN Resident Coordinator and United Nations Development Programme Resident Representative, Christian Lemaire was at the center of the complicated negotiations between the DPRK and major international donors. In the second portion of NK News’ conversation with Lemaire, he talks about how distrust would culminate in the eventual departure from the Agreed Framework by both sides.
Lemaire, who arrived in the North in 1996 following the previous year’s catastrophic flooding, said that the UNDP was at the time enacting the only economic development program the nation had seen since the 1970s.
This programme, which had been implemented since the 80s, had included the development of coal mining, computer software and programs for teaching English as a foreign language, Lemaire said.
But, as concerns over security rose amid a shifting political climate, the ability to secure funding for development projects became increasingly difficult and donor nations, particularly the U.S., regarded the UNDP’s efforts with more scrutiny.
“Any major donor, and the U.S. was the major donor…naturally wants oversight on how their money is used,” he says. “So Congress had every right to ask for an account at any given time.”
However, “everything in North Korea is so politically charged and that can make an already difficult environment almost impossible for a development agency,” he adds.
The major shift in attitude towards the DPRK came in the mid-90s after a new Republican congressional majority took a hostile position towards North Korea and began to move away from the Agreed Framework reached in 1994. Although the UNDP’s development projects were increasingly subjected to harsh scrutiny, Lemaire said he attempted to be as transparent as possible.
“In several instances…I was accompanied by senior officials of the DPRK so they could also speak for themselves,” he says. “I always made sure that someone was keeping Washington and others informed of everything that was being done by UNDP in North Korea, especially in sensitive areas. But the thing is that in North Korea, everything is a sensitive area.”
Despite Lemaire’s efforts to allay donors’ concerns, suspicions towards the DPRK prevailed, particularly among congressional Republicans in the U.S.
“I was asked to provide the U.S. Congress with an explanation as to why UNDP was helping North Korea to build its (tunnels), software and (EFL) capacities that had probably been put to military use, despite the fact that the projects had been designed, approved and funded by the same parties that were now challenging them.”
In time, those implementing the development programme would face charges from conservatives in the U.S. that development projects in the DPRK were prolonging the life of the regime.
“… in that case, most of our projects shouldn’t have been done in North Korea because of the issues at hand and the fact that UNDP is a capacity-building programme,” he says. “They should ask themselves the question as to why did they send UNDP there in the first place.”
Identifying the precise point in which the breakdown of relations between the two nations occurred is difficult, but it would appear that the distrust felt by both sides pushed them away from the Agreed Framework. Lemaire recalls a meeting with North Korea’s then-foreign minister in 1996 that illustrates this point.
“The minister said, ‘We did our part of the deal, remained in the (Non-Proliferation Treaty), closed down the nuclear plan and stopped producing electricity, allowed (the International Atomic Energy Agency) in to install their seals and monitoring equipment. We received the first shipment of oil and then it stopped.’” Lemaire recounts. The official was asking for help, stating that the DPRK was facing severe food and other shortages and lacking the means to generate sufficient electricity without shipments of oil.
Lemaire notes that the U.S. had delivered some shipments, but on an “unreliable stop-and-go basis and not in the agreed quantities.” The Agreed Framework would ultimately be abandoned in 2002 after accusations of that North Korea had started a uranium enrichment program.
Based on his experience working with working as a UN representative to the country, Lemaire contends the Agreed Framework was a balanced approach, and probably the best way to achieve reconciliation, and perhaps even peaceful reunification of the two Koreas. He feels that the Six-Party Talks, which took place from 2003 until the North stopped participating in 2009, were not so suitable.
“The North Koreans told me…(the Six-Party Talks were) conceived to delay any kind of permanent … settlement and further isolate them in the process,” he said. Since the talks began, North Korean officials have told Lemaire that the format of these talks disadvantaged them.
“This is why it’s not going to work. We have no say in the agenda,” he recalls them saying. “We are not allowed to add our own points for discussion. We are only at the receiving end of the meeting agenda and told what we have to agree to. Nobody is asking what we want, how we feel about things.”
Yet with tensions between North and South Korea continuing amid UN sanctions, rocket tests and military drills, he remains convinced that diplomatic efforts must continue.
“We have to break the deadlock,” he says.