Getting Acquainted with North Korea: A Journey of Gradual Discovery

Anju kindergarten children performing for the World Vision delegation.

After the flood devastation of the mid-1990s, I was one of the two Americans the North Koreans requested to help them seek humanitarian assistance for their country. Thus began a long journey of discovery of the DPRK humanitarian space filled with uncertainties and challenges. In delivering aid, I got to know the North’s rural communities and townships for the first time even though I had been visiting the country since 1988. I gained precious insights and perspectives about North Korea not available to occasional or casual visitors. 

Among my most lasting memories of these fifteen years is the collective excitement of the aid agencies from 1996 until 2000. All were eager to explore North Korea and discover how to engage it through providing humanitarian assistance. There was close networking within the European Union (EU) for the European NGOs and in a Washington, DC-based North Korea Working Group for NGOs in the United States. All of the organizations sent their most senior officials to become acquainted with this virgin territory. Donor missions and NGO delegations visited the North regularly and I would often meet them on flights between Pyongyang and Beijing. In Pyongyang itself, there was an inter-agency meeting every Friday to coordinate activities and exchange information about latest developments in the North. It was always well attended and helped to foster a sense of community among humanitarian workers. 

Today, North Korea’s humanitarian crisis is almost forgotten. Few NGOs remain engaged. Donors are reluctant to continue their financial support. I am deeply saddened by this dramatic change knowing very well that a food deficit persists in the North and the most vulnerable groups, such as children under seven-years-old, are threatened by malnutrition. I continue to ask how the international community can refuse to feed these children. Surely the North can no longer claim that it is unfamiliar with the humanitarian principles and operational requirements of international relief agencies. So I also wonder why it is so difficult for the DPRK to request food assistance and negotiate mutually satisfactory terms with aid agencies. Can its legitimate national security concerns be so paramount that they leave no room to accommodate the international norms and standards governing humanitarian assistance? After all this time, is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs still unable to make the essential interpreters, vehicles and warehouses available? 

Over time I have come to appreciate at a deeper level the complexities of this humanitarian crisis. Factors with roots in the Korean War and the division of the peninsula have led the DPRK into a pattern of diplomatic brinkmanship and rivalry using the threats of military force and nuclear weapons. That experience constitutes the lens through which the North views all its international relations: whether to receive food aid or not, whether to agree to proposed food aid delivery procedures, whether to participate in international events like Track II seminars, whether or not to admit foreign delegations to visit. All this influences the North’s relationship with aid agencies to this day. 

Moreover, given that the two largest donors have been South Korea and the United States, countries that are deeply involved in trying to resolve outstanding security differences with Pyongyang in the Six Party Talks, food aid negotiations become complicated as each party looks for the others’ political motive in delivering or denying humanitarian help. NGOs providing aid cannot avoid the diplomatic fallout. My growing understanding of these complexities has helped me avoid throwing up my hands in frustration and abandoning the task at hand, especially during crises like the first half of 2009, when all visits had to be postponed while the DPRK prepared for a new missile launch and a second nuclear test. 

One of my most frustrating experiences was the North’s refusal to allow engineers from my organization, World Vision International (WVI), to stay outside Pyongyang close to the project site. I had repeatedly asked for such permission because it would have saved at least four hours of travel each day and would also have given them more time to devote to their assignment. No clear or reasonable explanation was ever given by our counterpart, the Korea-America Private Exchange Society (KAPES). At times it was “for the sake of the security of your engineers.” At other times it was because no suitable hotel was available. North Korea’s position appeared illogical to an outsider and one was left always to surmise the real reason behind the refusals. 

Victor Hsu (left) visiting the Anju World Vision Noodle Factory.

However, North Korean officials could also be surprisingly forthcoming. In May 2008, I was involved in negotiations between the United States government (USG) and the DPRK on a Letter of Understanding (LOU) for 500,000 metric tons of food aid. I was most interested in the highly sensitive issue of random access. It was no surprise that the LOU negotiation was intense and painstaking. It was also predictable that random access would be among the three outstanding issues to be resolved. I was surprised, therefore, that the chief DPRK negotiator did not pursue the usual tactic of invoking national security concerns ad nauseam. Instead he explained that passes and travel permits were needed everywhere and took time to obtain; security clearances were encumbered by bureaucratic procedures and often complicated by poor or inadequate communication facilities. 

Yet another consistent complaint within the humanitarian community has been about the unreasonable and inflexible attitude of the North with regard to the engagement of Korean speakers. In my experience this is not entirely justified. From the early days of aid provision to the DPRK, Korean speakers were always allowed into the country, albeit on a case-by-case basis. I know this personally, having been responsible for selecting monitors in the two USG food aid consortia that involved  American NGOs (from 1998-2001 and July 2008-March 2009). Twenty percent of the monitors were Korean speakers. In the second consortium, one of the sixteen Pyongyang-based food aid management staff, Yeri Kim, was actually born in South Korea. 

I am not saying that the North has always welcomed Korean speakers with open arms! As a highly regimented national security state, North Korea assiduously seeks to minimize its exposure to information gathering by outsiders. One of the complexities of having Korean speakers who are not South Korean citizens is that many of them have lived and learned Korean in the South. It is a delicate issue, but one can only hope that North Korea will recognize the demonstrated sincere and genuine desire to work with it shown by many the Korean speakers who have been engaged. 

It has also been puzzling to the aid community that U.S. NGOs have not been allowed to open an office in Pyongyang. This lack of a permanent onsite presence has discouraged them from working in the North. Officials there explain that until there is normalization of relations with the United States, it is impossible for an American NGO to establish an office or any kind of binding agreement with the North Korean government on liabilities and indemnities. Government-to-government agreements, such as the food aid protocol negotiated with the U.S. in May 2009, can be honored, but North Korea is unwilling to sign any binding agreement with a non-governmental entity. 

In the face of all these constraints I have often been asked why I stayed on. Like others who choose to remain engaged, my presence does not mean that the operational environment, monitoring or reporting have been satisfactory. I am acutely aware that they fall short of best practice standards in the humanitarian industry. My commitment to healing the divisions inflicted on the Korean people at the end of World War II began more than two decades ago when I was on the staff of the World Council of Churches. We knew then that none of this would be easy, but we were committed to staying the course as long as it took. In those days, many things possible now in terms of access to the North and engagement there to improve the quality of life were simply unthinkable. When I see that it has been possible to make some significant progress in alleviating the humanitarian crisis, I can say to myself that the long years of active patience have been worth it. 

Anju kindergarteners lunching on World Vision noodles.

I had the privilege to work on one such project run by WVI in Dochi-ri, a farming community of some 13,000 residents in North Hwanghae Province. The Dochi-ri project was set against a dramatic North Korean decision in September 2005 to terminate all humanitarian aid and switch to development assistance. Soon NGOs unwilling to make the change would no longer have access to the country. The UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs closed its operation and the World Food Programme scaled down its operation to a staff of ten. 

I made my first visit to North Korea as the WVI National Director two months after that announcement. I was looking forward to discussing with the North Koreans future programmatic possibilities but instead was presented with a proposal by the Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee (FDRC) to build the DPRK’s first organic fertilizer plant. FDRC officials were unwilling to discuss any other programming by WVI, pointing out that the government had changed its policy for NGOs and other international organizations. To remain engaged in the country, all organizations would have to provide development assistance as a major component. 

After I returned to New York, the DPRK Mission to the UN faxed to my office an official proposal containing a feasibility study by the DPRK Ministry of Agriculture for an organic fertilizer plant. I met with officials at the UN Mission to seek clarification about both the FDRC reluctance to discuss any WVI programming and the feasibility study. They told me in unambiguous terms that the North expected WVI to regard the fertilizer plant as a top priority because it would help increase its crop yield, thus contributing to North Korea’s food security. When I pressed the Ambassador about discussing WVI’s interest in water and sanitation as well as in upgrading clinics and schools, he replied that he was prepared to discuss those issues as long as WVI would make a commitment to provide the entire cost of labor and materials for the proposed organic fertilizer plant! 

Dochi-ri school solar panels and World Vision water engineers drilling.

Over the next few months the officials at the Mission and I embarked on discussions about the nature of humanitarian aid and the issue of designating funding, the political challenges of development assistance and the meaning of genuine partnership. I emphasized that WVI was focused on child welfare and was not in the business of donating fertilizer plants. In the end, the Ambassador and I reached an agreement that had some notable aspects in terms of a genuine partnership and the participation of a local community. Instead of paying for the entire operation, WVI took the responsibility to determine and purchase the most suitable equipment and to send technicians to Dochi-ri to help set up the fertilizer plant. For its part, the North would provide building materials and construct a facility to house the equipment. This in-kind contribution reduced my organization’s cost by $100,000. 

This arrangement became the model for the implementation of the entire Dochi-ri project during the next two years. WVI consultants were allowed to visit the site to make surveys and design the project while the local community fully participated in the planning and implementation throughout the process. The Dochi-ri residents selected the site for the organic fertilizer plant and chose the clinic, kindergarten and schools whose roofs were to be replaced. For energy, they agreed to try renewable solar power instead of insisting on the “traditional” diesel generators. They provided labor and materials for the construction of the building that housed the organic fertilizer plant. They did the same for the food-processing centre that supplied bread and soymilk for the schools. They built the latrines. They dug the ditches and wells, built water towers and laid the pipes for the gravity-fed potable water system that would supply the entire community and every household. 

According to KAPES and the DPRK Mission to the UN, there were two “firsts” related to the Dochi-ri project. The organic fertilizer plant was the first ever to be constructed in the North and solar energy was used for the first time. Dochi-ri now enjoys a holistic approach in addressing food security, basic community health care, the supply of clean water and renewal energy. The experience has been so positive that both the DPRK government and KAPES are encouraging all agencies working in the North to consider replicating it elsewhere in the country. I am delighted with their enthusiasm. The Dochi-ri project is sustainable because it has strong local community ownership. The technology used was appropriate, not high tech, and is easy to maintain. But the most significant contribution that WVI has made is the improvement in the quality of life for the Dochi-ri residents who now enjoy clean water and food security. 

I do hope that humanitarian agencies take up this challenge. Water and sanitation projects are perfectly suited to meet the immediate needs of both children and adults at a local level, with little chance that donated inputs will be diverted for other purposes. There will certainly be continuing setbacks, new frustrations, difficulties and challenges. But if humanitarian agencies can remain patient, creative, and responsive to the real needs of the North Korean people, there is much, very rewarding work yet to be done. 

April 1, 2010

Recommended citation: Hsu, Victor W.C., “Getting Acquainted with North Korea: A Journey of Gradual Discovery,” 38 North, Washington, D.C.: U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, April 1, 2010. Online at:

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