“I haven’t gone native, but I want us to sign a document handing our aid over to Kim Jong Un.”
So said Shelterbox staffer Alf Evans as he spoke on the phone to the charity’s headquarters from inside North Korea.
Shelterbox, an international disaster-relief charity, works in areas as far apart as Samoa, Namibia and Syria. Responding to the violent typhoons that hit Korea earlier this year, Shelterbox negotiated with the (North) Korea Committee for the Promotion of International Trade to send aid to Pyongyang.
Arriving in the bitterly cold Korean January, Evans oversaw the distribution of donated building materials, tools and tents. Like every other foreign visitor, he was also expected to visit sites of special importance in the capital.
“Seeing their cultural sites turned out to be a huge advantage,” he told NK News. “I saw immediately that their culture is proud and wary. Without this knowledge I wouldn’t have been able to negotiate the distribution of the aid, but because of it I was willing to do things differently.”
Rather than following Shelterbox’s usual protocol of carrying out assessments before sending aid, Evans allowed the DPRK government to judge the most vulnerable people before inspecting afterwards. Working with deputy provincial governors, Evans arranged for tents to be set up in the worst-affected areas.
“I recognized the importance of the North Korean leadership in providing everything used by the people,” Evans said. “Usually the ownership of our aid remains with Shelterbox throughout, but private property is not a concept understood over there.”
“Everything is a gift from the leaders, and that is why we had to accept that working with them involves adapting to their culture.”
“When I went to see the tent site they had constructed, I was careful to bow and thank them for looking after the tents so well. I told them North Korea was the world standard at putting up tents. Their chests swelled with pride.
“We were also keen to explain that Shelterbox is not political, but a group of people helping others. The North Korean ideology is about working together collectively, and we were able to tap into this.”
After sending an initial 200 boxes of construction materials, Shelterbox has since sent more than 1,600 boxes.
“Our work is absolutely making a long-term difference,” Evans said. “When I visited a construction site about 150 kilometers outside Pyongyang, I was the first non-Korean the people had seen. It was as though they had been watching Star Wars films all their lives and then Darth Vader had turned up. Every window had faces looking out at me.
“They grow up being told we are the enemy. But now some people know some foreigners are not like that.”
The tents can also help the North Koreans recover more quickly than they would have done from the typhoons.
“It is common to see people walking long distances to get to where they have been told to work. But now they can set up their tents on the construction sites, giving them more time to build and collect the harvest.”
Stephen Branfield, a Shelterbox lawyer and part of a team heading to North Korea in November, said “when we first went to verify the aid was correctly distributed, the North Korean officials gave us detailed lists of the occupants, the size of each family, where they were from, and what had happened to their own property. They were very organised.”
“Although we didn’t follow our usual procedure at first, now we have built up trust the North Korean government allows us to be involved from a very early stage, enabling us to be satisfied that the aid goes to those in genuine need.”
Many have criticized NGOs’ involvement with the North Korean government, arguing that providing aid allows the regime to stay in control.
“The dilemmas for aid NGOs that work in and with North Korea are acute,” consultant and researcher on Korea Aidan Foster-Carter told NK News. I fully understand why some are not prepared to forgo their usual principles and adapt to a unique environment. However, for me the issue is pragmatic and humanitarian. Can you relieve suffering? If on balance you believe you can, then get in there. Also, NGOs demonstrate that not all foreigners are devils.”
Shelterbox’s next trip to North Korea, in response to the floods over the summer, is scheduled to visit areas the team has not yet visited. “We want to keep on going,” said Evans, “but we’re at the limits of what we can do.”
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