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Issue 8
January 16, 2003

North Korea from an NGO Perspective

by Michiya Kumaoka, Japan International Volunteer Center (JVC)

(Note: Slightly edited for readability.)


The summit meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jung-Il on September 17, 2002, made history by opening up the door to the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries. At the same time, however, feelings of public hostility and media criticism toward North Korea have been rising in Japan, primarily as a result of the abduction issue*.

The Japan International Volunteer Center is a Japanese NGO that has been involved in international cooperation activities in conflict areas in Asia and Africa for many years. We recently have been providing humanitarian aid to people in North Korea and would like to present our view of the country from this perspective.

The Food Shortage

JVC first became involved in North Korea after participating in a conference held in Seoul in August 1995 on the theme, "Building Civil Society in the Asia Pacific Region," which served to spark exchanges between Japanese and North Korean NGOs. After the conference, a representative of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), who had just visited Pyongyang, informed us that North Korea had suffered major flood damage that month.

Following an unprecedented appeal for assistance to the global community by the North Korean government, a number of NGOs in Japan came together to form a liaison group with the goal of providing support to the people of North Korea. Together we transported 61 tons of rice to North Korea and distributed it to 10 villages. One elderly villager in her 60s who came to receive the food rations explained to us, "Our rice and corn stocks are nearly exhausted, so we are subsisting on things like wild plants, vegetables, and berries that my daughter-in-law and I pick, and fish and seaweed that my husband and son gather at the seashore." Seven years have passed since then, and the food situation has not improved.

Eighty percent of North Korea's land is covered by rocky, mountainous terrain, making it impossible for the country to be self-sufficient in terms of food even in a year blessed with favorable weather conditions. As a result of many years of deforestation and the cultivation of steep lands, the soil is no longer arable and has lost its ability to hold water, leading to floods when it rains and droughts when it does not. This situation has left the country with a chronic food shortage. According to surveys conducted every year by organizations such as the WFP and UNICEF, 16 to 18 percent of children in North Korea suffer from chronic malnutrition, with over 25 percent suffering from acute malnutrition.

Is the Aid Reaching the Citizens?

The support that the international community has extended to North Korea focuses mostly on alleviating the food shortage and on medical treatment and hygiene. In terms of UN activity, the WFP has placed 47 staff members in its Pyongyang office and five regional offices, which has enabled it to conduct more on-site surveys and check the results of aid efforts. One representatives states, "It is difficult to confirm 100 percent of the food distribution, but the food is reaching over 90 percent of the targeted population." Of North Korea's 206 districts, the WFP is conducting its activities in all but 43 districts, the latter being areas where the presence of military facilities and other factors prevent them from confirming food distribution.

Other organizations also have been playing an important role in this arena. The Eugene Bell Foundation, based in the United States and Korea, has been active in providing medical support, such as treatment for tuberculosis. The foundation's representative comes from a missionary family that has lived on the Korean peninsula for over four generations. He has visited North Korea over 40 times and has even visited the mountain farm villages where foreigners are normally prohibited. Also, the representative of an NGO called Caritas Hong Kong, has traveled around North Korea's northeastern region, an area where it is generally difficult to provide aid but where he has been steadily carrying out humanitarian aid activities.

There are criticisms that the aid is not reaching the civilians in North Korea and that it is being rerouted to the military, and it is difficult to provide evidence that all of the aid is actually reaching the targeted population. However, nutrition surveys conducted since 1998 indicate that the school attendance rate and nutrition situation has improved among children in kindergartens and elementary and junior high schools where aid is being supplied in the form of school lunches and snacks. In addition, the deworming medicine distributed by South Korean NGOs and UNICEF has contributed to the improvement of children's health. While it is true that NGOs are not able to freely conduct aid activities and face difficulties in monitoring the results, this in no way implies that the majority of aid is being rerouted to the North Korean government or military authorities. The aid activities are, in fact, producing meaningful results.

An NGO Perspective

The aid provided to North Korea may technically be defined as humanitarian aid, but it serves more than one purpose. It not only helps those living in poverty but also ultimately gives North Koreans a sense that the global community cares and that they are connected to this community. This may in turn help to lessen feelings of hostility among North Koreans toward the rest of the world.

Amid a domestic environment of intensifying criticism toward North Korea, Japanese NGOs are continuing to carry out programs on a small scale, such as supplying nutritious food and provisions to orphanages and heating for children's facilities, or holding exhibitions in Japan of drawings by North Korean children. In the current atmosphere of negative reporting about North Korea, the future outcome of negotiations concerning the normalization of Japan-Korea relations is ambiguous. As skeptics point out, the current aid scheme may require some improvements, especially with regard to the monitoring aspect. Nevertheless, so long as the need exists, it is important that humanitarian aid for North Korea be continued as a direct way to improve the lives and health of women and children and as a means of supporting peaceful conflict resolution.


* After years of denial, in September 2002, North Korea admitted to abducting 13 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. While five abductees returned to Japan in October 2002, the issue has become highly charged in Japan due to intense media attention, questionable explanations of the deaths of eight abductees, and unanswered questions regarding others believed to have been abducted. —Ed. [back]


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