Global Fund, an international aid financing organization which in February last year prompted concern when it announced it was ending a multi-million dollar North Korea aid project, is considering a return to its work in the DPRK, a spokesperson for the group told NK News this week.
No timeframe for the return has been formally decided, they said, though NK News understands the project may be restarted as early as October.
“The Global Fund is exploring options for the possibility of launching a new grant for tuberculosis and malaria in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Seth Faison, head of communications at the fund, confirmed in an email. “No timing has been set.”
Global Fund previously supported two projects in North Korea — one focused on tuberculosis and another aimed at combating the spread of malaria in the country’s southern provinces — and was considered a vital source in addressing such health issues due to the volume of money it was providing.
The group spent a total of $103.3 million on DPRK aid work from 2010 to 2018, reporting that it had treated 194,000 cases of tuberculosis in that time.
But the group in February last year announced it was ending its North Korea grants, saying the country’s “unique operating environment” had prevented it from ensuring its funds were being allocated responsibly and spent effectively.
Comments by a Global Fund spokesperson to NK News this week suggest those concerns remain, however, and that the group’s return to North Korea operations may be contingent on greater transparency for their in-country projects.
“The Global Fund closed previous grants in June 2018, because of concern that the unique operating environment in the DPRK prevented us from achieving the required level of assurance on the deployment of resources and the effectiveness of grants,” Faison, the group’s head of communications, said.
“This year, if there are improved implementation arrangements, including better access to program sites and independent verification, we will consider making a new grant. We remain committed to supporting the health of people in DPRK.”
Global Fund’s decision to withdraw last year prompted a wave of criticism and concern from many in the North Korea aid community, with a letter in the medical journal The Lancet urging the NGO against scrapping what was described as “the largest foreign investment in health in North Korea in history.”
“The suspension of Global Fund grants, and the absence of any coherent exit strategy, is likely to lead to massive stock outs of quality-assured TB drugs nationwide,” the letter read.
“In other settings, this has led to the rapid creation of drug-resistant TB strains, as doctors ration pills and patients take incomplete regimens.”
One of the authors of that letter told NK News Wednesday he was aware that the Global Fund was considering a return to the DPRK and welcomed the move.
“Naturally, I support the process and hope that the grants can be restored before the buffer stock runs out,” Kee Park, a lecturer on Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, said.
Despite this, he stressed, questions remained about the Global Fund’s decision to withdraw from North Korea in the first place.
“The February 2018 announcement by the Global Fund to close its DPRK grants … came at a time when the U.S.-led maximum pressure strategy was peaking,” he said. “The timing led to many to suspect that the decision was political and therefore tarnished the reputation of the Global Fund as an impartial humanitarian organization.”
“There was a limited tactical value of suddenly closing the grants in achieving their goals vis-a-vis increasing access and monitoring capacity… the North Koreans rarely respond to threats and pressure, if ever,” he continued.
“It remains to be seen once the terms are revealed in the new grant but one has to ask if the results could have been achieved without putting the lives of the North Korean tuberculosis patients at risk.”
Also unclear is the timeframe within which Global Fund would return to North Korea, with delays likely to have a major impact on the DPRK’s ability to counter the spread of tuberculosis — one of the country’s most serious public health issues.
“The stocks of TB medication are dwindling and due to run out next year,” Nazanin Zadeh-Cummings, a Lecturer in Humanitarian Studies at Deakin University’s Centre for Humanitarian Leadership, told NK News.
“If the decision comes too late, there may be large numbers of North Koreans who go untreated,” she added. “A potentially worse scenario would be TB drugs being rationed as long as possible, aiding in the spread of [multi-drug resistant] TB.”
“With aid now having to jump through sanctions hoops, nothing seems to be moving fast so we may have already passed the point where a decision to re-engage would prevent a gap in treatment.”
But while international sanctions have been known to impact the aid delivery in the past, the news that the Global Fund is considering a return to North Korea work comes amid what appears — at least on the surface — to be an easing process since the beginning of the year for organizations working in North Korea.
Edited by Colin Zwirko
Featured image: NK News