My Bumpy Road to Pyongyang

When I was summoned to the office of my new boss, the other staff looked at me as though I was about to enter a lion’s den. I paused at the door, took a deep breath, and entered. I wanted to make a good impression in my first meeting with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) DPRK Country Director. She was reading a file on her desk when I came in. Not certain if she had noticed me, I knocked on the open door.

“Close the door and sit down!” she snapped, without looking up.

I sat in the only chair I could see, across from her desk. I looked around as she continued reading in silence. Her spacious office used to be the master bedroom of the United Nations Resident Representative in Pyongyang. It was sparsely furnished with a desk and a large filing cabinet. When the WFP established its DPRK country office in 1996, it set up operations in the vacant residence of the UNDP compound.

At the time of my arrival there were only five international staff. The British deputy-director had greeted me that morning when I arrived jet lagged from the hotel. He showed me the empty downstairs bedroom that was to be my office and introduced me to the young North Korean assistant who said he would take care of my every need. I also met the two Bangladeshi monitors, the German office manager and two local staff in a living/dining room area that had been converted into an open-concept office on the ground floor.

“You have been communicating directly with North Korean authorities.”

It was an accusation, not a question. Before joining the WFP, Brigitta Karlgren had been a colonel in the Swedish Army, a logistics officer in an emergency unit specially created for the United Nations to deal with human and natural disasters. Everything she said tended to sound like an order.

“Yes, I have,” I responded hesitantly. It dawned on me that my independent initiatives might have struck a raw nerve in the UN chain of command.

“From this day forward, you will not speak to, write to, meet with or communicate with anyone from the DPRK government,” she instructed. “All written communications inside and outside this country will go from my office under my signature. Is that understood?”

“I understand what you are saying,” I replied, speaking slowly. “But my constituency are NGO donors. My job description requires me to report to them directly.”

“The NGOs may be your donor base, but officially you are an employee of the United Nations. The DPRK government has agreed to the establishment of FALU on the express condition that it falls under the authority and responsibility of the WFP.”

FALU is the acronym for Food Aid Liaison Unit, the name agreed upon between the WFP and the DPRK. In WFP parlance, my position would normally have been “NGO Liaison Officer.” However, FALU avoided explicit mention of NGOs because the North Koreans were new to the aid game and especially new to the concept of unregulated nongovernmental entities. As a novice member of the United Nations, the DPRK felt it had some control over UN agency activities within the country. But NGOs were regarded with great suspicion.

“So I repeat,” Karlgren said, elbows on the desk and leaning forward. “You will not speak or write to anyone outside this office. That includes especially the press and other media. You can report to your NGOs how their donations are used and monitored, but the signature under your reports will be mine.”

Apparently, it wasn’t just the North Koreans who viewed NGOs with great suspicion.

Although this wasn’t how I expected to be treated on my first day of work in North Korea, I wasn’t entirely surprised. The UN system as a whole has a love-hate relationship with NGOs. Why should this posting be any different? I came to understand Karlgren’s attitude. She had the unenviable job of establishing a humanitarian operation in a most inhospitable environment. Being a woman in an aggressively male chauvinist society merely compounded the aggravation. Besides, she was right to be suspicious. My road to Pyongyang had been anything but smooth.

NGOs are a quarrelsome bunch. We have a passion to do good, but that passion too often translates into arrogance—the assumption that we know better than anyone else what’s right. In the “good old days,” missionaries followed colonial armies to convert the heathens and share the “white man’s burden” of civilizing humanity. Are today’s NGOs the secular equivalent of the missionary movement? One might be tempted to say that theology has been replaced by ideology, but that word too has lost much of its meaning in a post-Cold War era—except maybe on the Korean Peninsula.[i] Kim Jong Il may be worried about the “ideological penetration” of Western-style NGOs if they are allowed “random access” to local populations, but most NGOs do not see themselves as purveyors of ideology. And yet…

Regardless of whether it was intense fear of ideological “pollution” or the experience of diplomats in Africa and Asia, when the DPRK appealed to the WFP in 1995, an in-country presence of NGOs was not part of their preferred scenario. But large-scale donor governments were not convinced that North Korea had food shortages severe enough to require substantial assistance. NGOs, on the other hand, rush in where donors fear to tread. In its initial months of operation, the WFP received more donations from NGOs than it did from governments.

The positive side of North Korean distrust of NGOs was that it forced interested NGOs to overcome their natural disinclination to coordinate among themselves. Having been rebuffed in their efforts to establish operations in the DPRK, agencies like World Vision International, Mercy Corps, Caritas Internationalis, Action by Churches Together (ACT), and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) hatched the FALU plan: a win-win-win scenario for NGOs, the WFP and the DPRK.

I was travelling with a World Council of Churches delegation in the South Pacific when my wife called me in Kiribati. A former colleague had called to see if I would be interested in working in Pyongyang.

“Is he out of his mind?” I said. “I hope you told him where to go.”

I knew what such a move would involve. I had considerable Korean experience in both the North and the South. I had visited the DPRK twice. In 1986, I managed to bring together North and South Korean Christian delegations in their first encounter since the Korean War.[ii] With my colleague Victor Hsu,[iii] I even organized the first international nongovernmental conference on the DPRK food crisis.[iv]

On the other hand, I was a self-employed consultant without institutional ties to any of the participating agencies, and I was available immediately. So I allowed two of the primary sponsors of FALU[v] (and my wife) to persuade me to apply.

Much to our collective surprise, my candidacy erupted into controversy.

True, I had never before worked in food aid, or food security, or in any aid agency for that matter. But that was hardly the primary concern.

An American born and raised in South Korea shouted loudly that it was insanity to send someone to Korea without Korean language skills—a moot point, since the DPRK refused to grant visas to Korean speakers.

The World Vision representative told me he had been treated badly on a visit to the World Council of Churches. Since I had been a WCC staffer ten years earlier, he wanted assurances that I would not be playing favorites.

The head of a U.S.-based agency threatened to hold a press conference in Washington, DC if I were chosen. He considered the WCC to have a pro-communist orientation, which would lead me to be too soft on the North Koreans. Being Canadian—the soft socialists that we are—only compounded the offense in his estimation.

At my job interview, a senior WFP official suspected I had motivations other than counting bags of corn in North Korean warehouses.

“Will you be raising human rights issues while in North Korea?” he asked.

“The right to food is a major human right,” I responded. “Making food accessible to the most vulnerable is the only priority any head of FALU should have in mind.”

It was the right answer, but suspicions lingered. In the end, however, all parties agreed to my candidacy. The WFP said they would forward my name to the DPRK.

A few days later, I received a telephone call from a North Korean diplomat stationed at the UN in Geneva requesting my help in obtaining a shipment of seeds. I suspected that this might be a test, so I got right on it, and a shipment was underway within the week.

After several weeks had passed, one of the FALU partners (not my sponsors) called to give me a “heads-up”: The WFP had asked the NGOs to find another name. The DPRK had given an “informal indication” that my name would not be approved.

My initial relief at not having to move to North Korea was soon replaced with curiosity. “Informal indication?” What was the reason for my rejection? If indeed I even had been rejected. I decided to call my contact in Geneva.

“I have no knowledge of such a decision,” the North Korean diplomat told me. “Fax me your CV so I can check with my capital.”

Two days later he assured me that no decision had been made, because the WFP had not formally proposed any name. He added that he had sent Pyongyang his own strong endorsement of my candidacy.

To avoid further conflicting signals and independent lines of communication, the NGOs financially contributing to the FALU office created a steering committee in order to negotiate with one voice. The fact of my presumed rejection by North Korea energized meetings to which I had been invited in Winnipeg at CFGB, in Geneva with ACT and in Rome with Caritas. These led to a unanimous recommendation that the WFP proceed formally to propose my name to the DPRK.

Victor Hsu, chair of the FALU steering committee,[vi] and I were invited to meet WFP Director General Catherine Bertini in Rome, prior to her official visit to Pyongyang.

“There is one thing on which I need your assurance,” she told me. “FALU may be financed by a limited group of NGOs, but as a WFP staff member, your responsibility will be to all NGOs who wish to donate to the food effort.”

Bertini personally informed the North Korean authorities that I was the WFP appointee for the FALU office. The DPRK granted my visa without further discussion.

Much later, at one of the frequent “friendship” parties thrown for the international community in Pyongyang, I finally met face-to-face with the North Korean diplomat I had corresponded with in Geneva. He confided that there had indeed been intensive debate about my candidacy within Foreign Affairs.

“There was a 50-50 split, and I was the tiebreaker,” he said with a laugh.

I’m more inclined to believe that they simply gave in to Bertini on this one, since there were much larger fish to fry at the time. On the other hand, it did explain Karlgren’s combative attitude towards me when I arrived in Pyongyang. In the WFP, country directors have authority to appoint staff. It is quite likely that she had floated my name informally with her counterparts and received an unenthusiastic response. Aware that there had already been controversy among the NGOs about me, she may have counselled headquarters to back off. Her boss’ reversal must have stung.

“How many months did they give you?” asked Karlgren. She was referring to the duration of the work visa stamped into my passport at the DPRK consulate in Beijing.

“Three months,” I said.

Karlgren seemed pleased. The duration of residence visas were an indication of the level of trust afforded by DPRK authorities. Three months was the norm for humanitarian workers, except for UN-related country directors, who usually got six.

“Remember this,” she said, looking me straight in the eyes. “When your three months are over, it is I who decide whether you stay longer!”

She turned back to reading the file on her desk. I was dismissed.

I returned to my empty downstairs office wondering what my next step should be. One of my Bangladeshi colleagues brought me a kitchen chair.

“They say your desk will be delivered this afternoon,” he said cheerfully. “But don’t count on it. Things take time in this country.”

I asked him to show me the ropes, so he invited me to accompany him into the field the following day.

Karlgren and I came to respect each other as colleagues. Before long she entrusted me with increasingly sensitive assignments. My visa was renewed time and again. Eventually, I outlived not only Karlgren, but three successive country directors after her.

This article is the first episode in a series by Erich Weingartner, Editor of the CanKor website and Report. Next episode: My Introduction to Nampo Port.

[i] A tour to the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone gives the impression that all of Korea is a Cold War theme park.

[ii] This event was held in Glion, Switzerland, after obtaining personal assurances in Pyongyang and Seoul that delegates would not be prosecuted on their return.

[iii] At the time, Mr. Hsu was Director of the East Asia and the Pacific Office at the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCCCUSA).

[iv] This conference, held January-February 1996 in Macau, was unusual in that it included delegations from all countries in the Six Party Talks. North Koreans brought extensive video footage of the 1995 floods.

[v] Geneva-based ACT and Winnipeg-based CFGB.

[vi] As representative of ACT, the organization that contributed the largest portion of the FALU operating budget, Mr. Hsu became the first in a rotating chairmanship.

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