A United Nations representative to the DPRK during the nation’s horrific mid-1990s famine believes that the arrival of aid from foreign donors saved many lives, but that distrust prevented sustainable economic development.
Christian Lemaire, the UN’s Resident Coordinator and United Nations Development Programme Resident Representative to the DPRK told NK News that his arrival took place a year after the flooding of 1995 as the “humanitarian tragedy” was unfolding.
“When I arrived in mid-1996, malnutrition was already widespread in the most vulnerable groups and I saw then small children in a state that I had only seen in Ethiopia during the famine years.”
“At the time, reconstruction, rehabilitation activities were not really started, as the government and the international community were grappling with the onslaught of famine and malnutrition.”
The 1991 collapse of the North’s historic ally and primary aid donor, the Soviet Union, had debilitating repercussions for North Korea’s economy, forcing the government to implement severe austerity measures. The nation was therefore particularly vulnerable to the floods of 1995, which destroyed much of the DPRK’s arable land, infrastructure and grain reserves.
Lemaire says that, at the height of their agricultural production before the end of the Soviet subsidies, North Korea may have produced greater than 5 million tons of grain and other produce annually. Following the flooding, though, he estimates that productivity had been reduced to less than a million tons, with the shortfall made up by imports and aid from China.
By the time of Lemaire’s arrival, their capacity to import had been diminished and their production areas lay in ruins, meaning even food aid could not prevent the shortfall that led to malnutrition and famine.”
The short-term goals of alleviating the combined stresses of a failing economy and the aftermath of natural disasters were originally intended to develop into projects for the long run, Lemaire says.
“This was the very reason why UNDP was needed as a development agency and coordinator, to expedite whatever rehabilitation assistance could be garnered for Korea with the longer view of transitioning from emergency to sustainable rehabilitation of the local agriculture and rural services,” he says.
The Humanitarian Tragedy and Inflated Statistics
News of the famine spread globally, compelling NGOs and governments to provide assistance. Statistics and reports on the numbers of lives lost due to the famine also played a large role in fostering public support for the North Korean people. However, disparate figures continue to cloud accounts from the period, with lower estimates saying that about 600,000 died, while other estimations put the figure closer to 3 million. Lemaire said that the lower estimates, while less “newsworthy,” were probably more accurate.
“Most of the people who died of starvation were in certain age brackets…the young ones and the elderly and the expecting mothers were as usual, the most affected because they form the vulnerable part of the population,” he says.
While working in the DPRK, Lemaire explained that he was granted “unfettered access” to much of the country, which allowed his UN colleagues to work on their own “very imperfect statistics.” Able to travel almost anywhere in the country, they employed techniques such as checking villages to see how many people had died in a specific time period, cross-checking reports against the number of new graves in the cemetery and conducting interviews with local citizens and health care workers.
The number of fatalities they ultimately calculated lay closer to 600,000 than 3 million. Those higher figures, he explains, came from reports originating from the Chinese border.
Why, then, was the 3 million figure so frequently cited? For one thing, they could not be “scientifically discounted” because Lemaire and his colleagues were unable to perform nationwide assessments according to international standards. Furthermore, the larger figures could impress upon the outside world that the situation was dire.
“Humanitarian agencies, they were in a bind: no possibility to make the usual needs assessments while needing to sensitize donors as much as possible,” he says, “so there is nothing wrong to try to dramatize; if you provide underwhelming figures then obviously you’re not going to be able to raise the amount of assistance needed, especially in the North Korean context.”
“Ultimately, the partners managed to raise a sizeable level of assistance in terms of food aid and medical aid. So all the hard work, over several years, managed to save a large part of the population who may very well have otherwise died.”
A Mutual Lack of Trust
During the famine and in the years following, a lack of trust inhibited additional aid prospects. Lemaire watched as the relationship between donors and the DPRK became increasing precarious, beginning with the donor nations requiring increased access to oversee the distribution of aid.
“That abrupt change was seen by the Koreans as an outside interference to impose reform,” he says. “The other major problem was their total distrust with, honestly, everything ‘humanitarian’ that flew in the face of Juche (the North Korean doctrine of self-reliance), and serious misgivings about some of the major donors’ ultimate objectives …”
In particular, North Korean officials questioned why only short-term emergency assistance was being provided, and why they were being “kept dangling.”
“They thought that the humanitarian programme was partly the result of genuine international … concern for the Korean people and partly politically motivated by the (foreign) governments,” Lemaire says. “On the other side, no major western donor really trusted the North Koreans to implement genuine rural rehabilitation, let alone development programmes, without trying to divert that particular aid to other places and for other purposes.
“As a result, we could say that the North Koreans were forced to take in a type of aid that they genuinely abhorred from donors that they deeply distrusted.”
Stay tuned for the second portion of our interview with Lemaire, featuring more about aid in North Korea, the role of the U.S. Congress in dismantling UNDP initiatives and his thoughts on flaws in policy towards the DPRK.
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