Civil society can be difficult to define – some view it as the space outside of the state and business interests, while others define it as voluntary activity towards a certain cause.
No matter the definition, North Korea is not exactly a bastion of civil society. The regime’s strict control on the population is well documented. While there is emerging evidence of growing non-legal activity, most notably private trade in markets, the DPRK continues to lack an organized civil society that is visible to the outside world.
There may be small pockets of North Koreans that organize clandestinely, but due to the nature of the North Korean state, such activity would be hidden from the regime and from the rest of the world.
The DPRK has had interactions with international civil society, and in some instances, interactions have been rich in both breadth and depth, and likely the largest group of foreign civil society groups the DPRK has forged relationships with are international humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Over 200 NGOs have worked to deliver humanitarian and development aid projects since the DPRK made an appeal for aid in 1995, including food deliveries, training of medical staff, seminars on business, and joint agricultural research.
Some of these groups worked on short-term projects, while others have cultivated relationships in the DPRK that have lasted decades. Most groups work remotely and visit the DPRK as needed, but a small number of European NGOs have been permitted to have staff living full-time in the country.
Humanitarian and development projects continue today, but on a smaller scale than in the years following the appeal.
But even before 1995, the DPRK had some surprising contacts in civil society, particularly with faith-based groups. The World Council of Churches (WCC) first visited the DPRK in 1985. WCC activities have included visiting the DPRK’s showcase churches and organizing inter-Korean church activities.
The DPRK has had interactions with international civil society, and in some instances, interactions have been rich in both breadth and depth
The DPRK’s long-standing intolerance towards religion betrays the sincerity of North Korean participation in these activities. A delegation from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker NGO, traveled to the DPRK in 1980.
AFSC’s aims were to engage in people-to-people connections and enhance their understanding of North Korean life, and it later became part of the humanitarian effort in the DPRK.
Delegations of Buddhists from South Korea have visited Buddhist sights in the DPRK. These groups sometimes contribute finances and labor to restoring Buddhist temples and shrines.
NORTH KOREAN NGOS?
The DPRK claims to be home to several ‘civil society’ organizations and ‘NGOs.’ Groups purported to fall under this category include the Korean Christian Federation (KCF), the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled (KFPD), the Korea Education Fund (KEF), and Korean Buddhist League (KBL). Despite the DPRK calling them NGOs, these groups are, in reality, aligned with government bodies.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) describes six groups that liaise with foreign organizations, including the Korea-America Private Exchange Society (KAPES) and Korea-China Association for Civil Exchange Promotion (KOCHACEP), as “Civil Organizations Sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs” on its website.
The DPRK’s motive in labeling the six MFA groups as “civil organizations” is not entirely clear. The groups may carry this label to mirror the foreign organizations they work with, which include civil society and humanitarian NGOs.
Over 200 NGOs have worked to deliver humanitarian and development aid projects since the DPRK made an appeal for aid in 1995
As evidenced by the inclusion of these groups on the MFA website, there is no effort to distance the groups from the government body. In my research on humanitarian aid, no academic or NGO sources have described any of the six interlocutors as a civil society group.
Groups like the KCF and KBL appear to have two main aims. First, these groups liaise with international counterparts, i.e. the KBL with outside Buddhist groups. The DPRK may seek to extract donations, resources, pathways to government contacts, or tourism dollars from these connections.
The groups may also facilitate humanitarian projects. The KFPD has connections to a range international civil society groups, which are proudly showcased on the KFPD website. Groups featured include large international NGOs (i.e. Handicap International), diaspora groups (i.e. Cura Mission), South Korean NGOs (Green Tree Charity Foundation International), and smaller regional NGOs (Kadoorie Charitable Foundation, Hong Kong).
The second aim is to offer proof of the DPRK’s supposed freedoms. For example, the regime can point to the KCF and its churches in Pyongyang as evidence that freedom of religion exists.
Scholars of democratization in China have examined the potential for emerging civil society actors to play a key role in political change. However, even a fledgling civil society in the DPRK remains elusive.
The government has created groups it flouts as evidence of civil society and freedom, but these bodies do not operate independently enough to represent the needs of their communities.
The KFPD has been lauded for its work, such as sending a North Korean troupe of performers with disabilities to the United Kingdom through an NGO called DULA International, and to deny that the KFPD represents true civil society is not to suggest its activities are unhelpful or unremarkable. But it is highly unlikely that people with disabilities in all levels of North Korean society have access to the KFPD’s work. In the case of the KCF and the KBL, true believers cannot organize in any public fashion.
The DPRK’s motive in labeling the six MFA groups as “civil organizations” is not entirely clear
These organizations may preserve aspects of Korean culture and heritage, as well as accommodate religious foreigners with worship facilities, but they do not represent a free and open religious community.
Simply continuing to expose North Koreans to civil society, including humanitarian groups and interest groups in areas such as culture and sport, may be the most effective way to encourage true civil society growth one day. It is not likely to be useful in any foreseeable future, but provides an alternative to shutting off DPRK interaction with these groups.
Even if North Korean officials do not agree with the idea of non-state led collective action, interacting with civil society organizations, at the very least, confronts them with new ideas and ways of thinking.
However, in order for civil society to one day emerge in the DPRK, citizens will need more space for non-state activities and to cultivate their own home-grown style of organizing.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: IMG_4693 by nknews_hq on 2016-07-02 04:28:26