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View more articles by Jerome Sauvage
Jerome Sauvage was UN Resident Coordinator in the DPR Korea from November 2009 to January 2013
The North Koreans, it seems, are angry about international sanctions, which limit their economic growth and squeeze humanitarian programs.
So, like Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables,” who burned his own hand to show his enemies that he didn’t fear them, the North Koreans are inflicting further pain upon themselves in order to protest the sanctions.
Meanwhile, the powerful Lingling storm is reported to have caused major damage to the country’s harvest. North Korean agriculture is so dependent upon the weather that the impact of one bad storm will show up next year in the annual production statistics — and in smaller portions of food for the 10 million who depend on it.
For all its mobilization and propaganda prowess, North Korea has no Disaster Risk Management (DRM) system. It doesn’t adequately take heed of severe storm warnings from NOAA, the top U.S. Agency for climate and oceans, or from other international agencies. When warned about pending catastrophic weather events, the country is in no position to evacuate communities.
In North Korea, people cannot just flee to another part of the country: they require need permissions, trains, buses, automobiles.
During a crisis, emergency response requires excellent civilian coordination, and that is always hard to obtain. Ask any national emergency agency in any country.
But in the DPRK, ministries and agencies don’t coordinate well because collaboration necessitates trust — a rare commodity.
And after the crisis, resilience in communities has never been encouraged, dependent as they are on some higher level of authority.
The UN aid program in North Korea is a paradox of size vs. significance
If and when disaster strikes, North Korea is likely to ask for international assistance, which will conflict with its demand to cut staff on the ground.
WE’VE SEEN THIS BEFORE
Trying to reduce expat personnel is nothing new in DPRK. Similar efforts began in the mid-1990s, as soon as the first NGOs and UN agencies arrived, and have occurred on and off since then.
The UN aid program in North Korea is a paradox of size vs. significance: it is one of the smallest UN programs worldwide in comparison to other developing countries of similar population size and development level (annual Official Development Assistance peaked at $33 million in 2018, or $1.3 per inhabitant).
And yet the UN in DPRK is the largest international presence in terms of mandate, program size, country coverage, and number of expatriates. It saves lives, as does the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Red Cross movement, six European NGOs, and non-resident NGOs — including from the U.S.
The biggest cut in the number of international staff that North Korea is demanding is to the UN Development Programme (from six to one or two staff).
It might well serve as an impetus for UNDP to close its office in Pyongyang. Since its re-opening in 2009, UNDP has refrained from delivering on its usual mandate of long-term development and national capacity-building, instead offering direct assistance to its populations (their new approach and renewed insistence on strict monitoring has disappointed the North Korean authorities).
And at the global level, it is no longer responsible for overall aid coordination within the UN, that mandate has passed onto the UN Secretariat.
The UN is the last entity currently maintaining comprehensive engagement with the DPRK
For the other Agencies, the proposed cut is limited: one or two persons at the World Food Program (WFP), UNICEF and WHO and none for the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) because they are already teams of two.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Whatever the reduction, it will be handled internally and without much fuss. But one thing will remain true: the DPRK will have to continue to meet accepted standards of international cooperation, and that will include monitoring by international personnel.
Negotiating access in DPR Korea has long been a long and difficult process, with the government often placing unacceptable constraints on access required for humanitarian agencies to undertake program implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of activities.
Whatever the reduction, it will be handled internally and without much fuss
The WFP, for example, has consistently enforced a policy of “no access, no food,” and until recently felt that their history of cooperation with the government allowed them to secure improvements in operating conditions, albeit never taking any for granted.
In spite of the UN’s insistence that it shouldn’t be, its program in North Korea has always been subject to the vagaries of international politics. North Korea’s demand to cut UN field staff is one more bump on the road to a complicated relationship.
The UN is the last entity currently maintaining comprehensive engagement with the DPRK: political, humanitarian, human rights.
Its agencies’ presence in DPRK, however small, is part of a more comprehensive engagement between North Korea and the international community. It is worth preserving.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News, via NK Pro