Since opening up to international humanitarian aid in 1995, North Korea has allowed at least 215 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to run projects in the country.
These groups come from all over the globe, and have engaged in a diverse range of work, from one-off shipments of material aid to long-term projects aimed at strengthening capacities.
The vast majority of NGOs that have worked in the DPRK come from the Republic of Korea (South Korea) or the United States. At least 59 American groups have worked in North Korea.
This is notable in the context of the DPRK’s candid contempt of the U.S. The North Korean perspective maintains that American imperialist forces were central in dividing the Korean peninsula and that the U.S. has used South Korea as a puppet ever since.
American groups gained access shortly after the DPRK’s appeal for aid: by 1997, at least 25 American groups had begun projects. Currently at least 15 American NGOs are engaged in humanitarian and development work in North Korea.
NGO engagement suffered with the end of the Sunshine Policy
North Korean rhetoric calls for the reunification of the peninsula while also decrying South Koreans as American puppets and capitalists. With such institutionalized mistrust and contempt for the ROK, it is somewhat surprising that the DPRK not only allows South Korean groups to deliver humanitarian aid but also does so in large numbers.
In South Korea, groups must register with the government to legally engage in aid activities in the DPRK. NGOs were not permitted to engage directly with the DPRK until 1999.
The number of registered groups has climbed from 9 in 1999 to 91 in 2012. South Korean NGOs benefitted from Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-Hyun’s ‘Sunshine Policy’ – warmer relationships on the peninsula facilitated making contact and arranging programs, and the ROK government’s Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund boosted NGOs’ access to financial resources.
NGO engagement suffered with the end of the Sunshine Policy and the May 24 measures of 2010. According to the Ministry of Unification, ROK NGOs made only 25 visits to the DPRK in 2015.
The large number of South Korean and American NGOs that have been able to work in North Korean indicates that the DPRK authorities are willing to grant access to groups from adversarial states. In some cases, these relationships are short, but some NGOs and their North Korean counterparts enjoy long-term partnerships and programs.
This suggests that other factors, such as program type, personal relationships, or financial resources, are higher on the DPRK’s priorities than keeping Americans and South Korean out of the country.
SOUTH KOREAN NGOS
ROK groups tend to be motivated to connect with their northern brethren. NGOs often cite reconciliation, opportunities for ROK and DPRK citizens to interact, and/or unification as inspiration for their North Korea work. South Koreans that want to interact with North Koreans have few options, as the ROK National Security Act prohibits unapproved communication with individuals in the DPRK. South Koreans pursuing engagement can use humanitarian NGO work as a vehicle to enter the country and interact with North Koreans.
Some NGOs and their North Korean counterparts enjoy long-term partnerships and programs
Previous research has suggested that this source of motivation can manifest in lower standards in areas such as monitoring and helping the needy. For DPRK authorities that do not share their ROK counterparts’ enthusiasm for inter-Korean exchange, allowing NGOs in still may hold benefits. The DPRK can take advantage of ROK groups and their lower standards to gain material inputs or other value from programs.
Inter-Korean politics play a significant role in the amount of NGO interaction between the ROK and DPRK, as evidenced by a surge in NGO activity during the Sunshine Policy and reduced engagement after the May 24 measures.
For the DPRK, it would be illogical to encourage ROK NGOs to undertake projects during high-tension periods, as this would weaken the state’s hard-line stance. When the overall political climate is one of greater cooperation, NGO activity increases thanks to the political will of both the DPRK and the ROK.
AMERICANS IN NORTH KOREA
American groups may also be subject to the political relationship between their home country and the DPRK, particularly if they choose to involve themselves in U.S. government aid programs. The U.S. government often ties food aid to nuclear negotiations, and has sometimes used American NGOs as partners to implement relief programs. This practice may have facilitated NGO entry in the DPRK, but carries the potential for failure.
The Private Voluntary Consortium (PVOC) was active from 1997 to 2000 and comprised of five American NGOs with US government support. Their potato seed propagation program ultimately collapsed. In 2008, a group of American NGOs delivering food aid on behalf of the US government was expelled from the DPRK without explanation.
Four years later, the U.S. government withdrew financial support for a U.S. NGO consortium project after the DPRK launched a rocket, though officially the American authorities cited concerns over monitoring. NGOs that are able to forge their own relationships without relying on government channels may enjoy greater stability, as evidenced by groups such as American Friends Service Committee, the Eugene Bell Foundation, and Christian Friends of Korea.
Unlike some groups from the European Union, American groups have no opportunity to become resident in the DPRK. They must work remotely, visiting the DPRK regularly or on an ad-hoc basis to monitor, evaluate, and plan projects.
Many American groups that have worked in the DPRK have religious connections, typically to Christianity. While NGOs are forbidden from evangelizing, the DPRK still allows such groups into the country.
WHY DOES NORTH KOREA LET THEM IN?
Agglobe International is a faith-based, American NGO spearheaded by a member of the Korean diaspora. A religious Korean-American NGO may appear to be the antithesis of who the DPRK wishes to allow into the country, yet Agglobe, like many other NGOs sharing one or more of these traits, has been able to deliver humanitarian work.
Unlike some groups from the European Union, American groups have no opportunity to become resident in the DPRK
This is not to suggest it is easy for an American or Korean NGO to work in the DPRK. They may face challenges securing access and negotiating their programming. As noted earlier, NGOs are subject to changes in the political climate.
Neither South Korean nor American groups can have full-time staff living in Pyongyang. NGOs are also subject to challenges in funding their DPRK projects, including donor fatigue, other humanitarian crises competing for funds, and negative public opinion towards delivering aid to North Korea.
The lack of a ban of Americans and Koreans (as well as religious NGOs) indicates that, for the DPRK authorities, other priorities trump keeping such forces and potential influences out of the country. In the famine years, the DPRK may have been seeking as much food aid as possible. Other forms of material aid, such as agricultural equipment or medical supplies, also seem to have been attractive enough to override the nationality of the people providing them.
In the past ten years, more NGOs have focused on sustainable development projects. The DPRK seems to believe these programs bring benefits, and thus allow NGOs from adversarial states in to deliver them.
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Featured Image: School at the Chongsan-ri Farm, North Korea. by (stephan) on 2008-06-10 11:33:00