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With aloof NK, civic groups hit snag in aid projects

NGOs call for institutional framework as Seoul seeks to restart relief

On May 26, the Moon Jae-in government gave its first green light to a civic group’s application to provide humanitarian aid to North Korea, indicating a shift in Seoul’s approach toward the issue.

The decision paved the way for the Seoul-based Korean Sharing Movement to help curb the spread of malaria in not only the epidemic-susceptible North but border regions in the South, for the first time in four years.

The approval prompted more than 50 other civic groups to rush to file applications for contact with their respective North Korean counterparts, boosting optimism for a restart of stalled initiatives. The Unification Ministry has since granted an additional 27 requests as of Friday, including for religious exchanges.

The hopes, however, are cooling quickly. About a week after Seoul’s approval, Pyongyang rejected a visit for the malaria project, taking issue with Seoul’s support for the UN Security Council’s latest resolution that expanded its blacklist of North Korean entities and individuals thought to be engaged in its nuclear and missile programs.

North Korean workers transfer medical supplies donated and shipped by Eugene Bell Foundation in this handout photo.
North Korean workers transfer medical supplies donated and shipped by Eugene Bell Foundation in this handout photo.

“We’re utterly baffled and disappointed,” Kang Young-sik, the KSM’s secretary-general, told The Korea Herald. The group had planned to ship quarantine supplies to the border city of Kaesong and travel to Pyongyang to discuss the program early this month.

“We have no option but to wait. This should be resolved through government-to-government talks. A private organization like us has no power.”


Political football

With many North Koreans exposed to malnutrition, infectious diseases and moribund health care, civic groups at home and abroad have long carried out relief programs.

But humanitarian assistance has in recent years become a source of debate as Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests dampen public sentiment toward inter-Korean projects. The Kim Jong-un regime may siphon off outside handouts to serve military and other unintended uses or fatten its own coffers, critics say.

A major setback came in 2011 when then-President Lee Myung-bak imposed the so-called May 24 ban on virtually all cross-border exchanges including trade, investment and travel in response to the North’s attacks on a South Korean corvette and border island a year earlier.

His successor Park Geun-hye had promised to restart humanitarian assistance in her first years, saying it should continue irrespective of political ups and downs, only to desert it following Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile test.

Last year, the government only authorized the Eugene Bell Foundation, an international organization that offered to send tuberculosis medication. All other plans were refused, including for relief supplies to cope with what North Korean state media called its worst flood disaster since World War II, which left at least 528 killed or missing and another 107,000 homeless, according to the UN.

“There had been consensus toward humanitarian aid until the Lee and Park administrations started developing the logic that it may help fund the nuclear program. Now it’s like if you support aid, you’re leftist and if you don’t, you’re rightist,” Kang said.

“Given the several years of letup, it would naturally take some time to work things out. But to me, the North’s refusal seems the product of mistrust that’s been exacerbated by the government’s inconsistency.”

The growing number of approvals points to the Moon administration’s resolve to reinstate the humanitarian principle, despite Pyongyang’s aloofness.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who served in various top human rights-related posts at the UN, has also said that humanitarian aid to the North should be allowed separately from political consideration, calling it a “universal value of mankind.”

Mindful of lingering skepticism, however, Unification Ministry officials said they would resume aid projects and other civilian exchanges “within the extent that does not undermine the framework of international sanctions, in a flexible manner.”

But many relief groups argue that the sanctions are not meant to limit civilian humanitarian assistance, urging the government to settle on its position and present a clear guideline.

“Theoretically, you may offer humanitarian aid even to a nation you’re at war with,” said Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

“Yes, there may be some ambiguity as to the interpretation of the sanctions, but it would not be problematic at all to help with fundamental needs such as extreme food shortages and medical and health care, in particular from the private sector.”


Urgent needs

Together with Gyeonggi Province, the KSM has since 2008 been undertaking joint prevention projects with North Korean authorities, doling out fumigator trucks, diagnostic kits, mosquito nets, drugs and other supplies.

The KSM’s primary concern is that malaria requires timely preventive activities given higher risks in summer, and therefore a delay would undercut their effects on both sides of the frontier.

According to the provincial government, the number of malaria patients in border regions here sharply dropped from 1,616 in 2007 to 339 in 2013. Since the program’s halt in 2013, the figures have risen again, reaching 458 in 2014, 545 in 2015 and 492 in 2016.

“Malaria prevention is a project that’s necessary for both Koreas, because disease and insect pests come and go across the border, so the work should be done in the North to ensure no one contracts malaria in the border areas in the South,” Kang said, adding the goods should be shipped no later than June.

“We’ve been unable to carry out the activity for the past four years, and if this vacuum continues for a few more years, the figures would skyrocket again in both the North and South.”

The Moon administration’s progressive stance toward humanitarian aid is raising hopes for not only fresh programs but also a rebirth of defunct initiatives.

Among the groups awaiting approval from the ministry is ChildFund Korea, which has been providing nutrition, medicine and hospital refurbishment support for North Korean children since 2001.

Following a 10-year hiatus, the fund is seeking to revive a plan to build a solar plant in the energy-strapped North, while crafting a new greenhouse project to help rural residents and their children grow vegetables themselves.

“There have been various side effects since the May 24 sanctions, as most of our programs were nearly shut down, we lost many sponsors and the activists lost jobs,” said Kwak Young-joo, who oversees the group’s North Korea programs.

Kwak, who also chairs the Korea NGO Council for Cooperation with North Korea, an association of 56 organizations running aid programs there, welcomed the policy shift but remains wary, saying the government’s attitude is too passive.

“I think the premise itself is not right -- there are no sanctions at the UN against humanitarian support, so it should be ‘within the extent that upholds the framework of the international community’s humanitarian aid. This kind of expression hurts each other’s feelings,” he said.

World Vision Korea, too, is gearing up to kick-start its existing agricultural project in the North after an on-site inspection. It runs five potato factories across the country and carries out joint research with local scientists to improve seeds and ramp up output.

As a global nongovernmental organization, it has some foreign staff working in the country but the lack of South Korean participants has posed challenges, according to Lee Joo-sung, head of the group’s North Korea division.

“The program is now in operation, though (things are) not so smooth. What’s regrettable is that South Koreans have been unable to visit because the program is modeled here and without them it could not go easily,” he said.

“South Korea’s humanitarian aid programs have significance in that they help achieve better understanding and a reconciliation between the two countries, and serve as a stepping stone to unification. And that’s something international NGOs cannot do.”


Institutional framework

To minimize the political influence and ensure autonomy, relief groups stress the need to lay an institutional framework for humanitarian assistance, saying the Unification Ministry has almost absolute authority.

Under the current system, South Korean individuals and entities are required to obtain the ministry’s approval to visit the North or communicate with its nationals on each occasion.

Last December, Rep. Lee In-young of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea proposed a bill with the help of the groups’ association, calling for the formation of a public-private, nonpartisan committee to review and vote on aid programs and related policy. It would boost transparency, shore up South Korea’s existing legislation on North Korea human rights through a neutral implementation of humanitarian aid without linking it to the political and military situation, they said.

“During last summer’s floods, people lost their homes and families and suffered from diseases. But the government did not let us provide relief supplies directly, so we had to resort to the International Committee of the Red Cross,” Kwak said.

“If there was a legal and institutional basis, we could have been able to send support.”

While making institutional efforts to improve the system, the government should encourage open debate such as with opposition parties at the National Assembly to foster national consensus on the issue, Lee at the University of North Korean Studies said.

Stephen Linton, founder and chairman of the Eugene Bell Foundation, has also suggested Seoul reform the current one-off approval system into one under which it grants relief groups licenses and keeps tabs on aid supplies on a regular basis.

“If the organization is not involved in any wrongdoing in North Korea and presents South Korea in a positive light, then the visitation rights to the North should be granted more flexibly,” he said at a news conference in Seoul on Thursday.

“If we continue to sit and wait for a better world to come, these people will all die.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com) and Jung Min-kyung (mkjung@heraldcorp.com)
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