PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS: The NGO Experience in North Korea, edited by L. Gordon Flake and Scott Snyder. Praeger Publishers, 2003, 176 pp., $45 (cloth).

Pity the poor nongovernmental organizations trying to work in North Korea. They face a monumental challenge — aiding a society that is starving and crumbling — yet their standard operating procedures don’t work and they have little or no leverage when dealing with Pyongyang. It is, by all accounts, a lose-lose situation.

L. Gordon Flake and Scott Snyder, two of America’s leading North Korea watchers, serve up a concise and informative account of the grim frustration that dominates NGO efforts in North Korea. It details the NGO experience from American, South Korean and European perspectives. Sadly, they are all similar: shared hopes, thwarted ambitions and real ambivalence about the impact such organizations can have on North Korea. NGO officials worry that their efforts support a corrupt and militaristic regime, with little tangible effect on the people who need aid most. Those fears appear well founded.

Accurate information on the scale of the North Korea crisis is hard to come by, but there is now virtually universal agreement that the difficulties are massive and structural. One authoritative estimate concludes that the famine of the late 1990s resulted in the deaths of 600,000 to 1 million people out of a prefamine population of 22 million. The authors in this study agree that “the U.N. World Food Program has now become an essential crutch upon which North Korea depends for its survival.”

The various authors detail a lengthy list of impediments to their relief efforts, the most significant of which is the government in Pyongyang. Normally, humanitarian organizations work in failed states where the central authority has collapsed. In North Korea, however, the state is a strong as ever and NGOs have to work with, around and through Pyongyang. As Snyder notes in his introduction, “the primary North Korean objective in dealing with U.N. organization representatives and NGO monitors in the country were clear: minimize contact and channels of communication with ordinary people and control access to the broader North Korean public, while drawing in as many resources as possible.”

As Flake explains in his chapter on the U.S. NGO experience, “From a DPRK perspective, it was unlikely that NGOs were anything other than either a Trojan horse intent on destroying the North Korean regime or intelligence gathering tools of the U.S. intelligence community.”

Thus, the government did everything possible to isolate NGO workers. Korean speakers were forbidden. Local contacts were continually replaced to frustrate attempts to build personal relationships. With rare exceptions, NGOs were not allowed to establish local offices, and visas were usually given only for short stays. The prospect of having to reapply theoretically forced NGOs to toe a politically correct line.

A regime that trumpeted its philosophy of self-reliance was embarrassed by being forced to ask for aid (although Pyongyang typically claimed that countries were asking North Korea to accept the aid as if it were a gift.) Attempts to find out just what the real situation was — a prerequisite to ensuring that aid was put to the best use — often backfired. The horrifying results of the 1998 nutrition survey — which showed widespread malnutrition and starvation — are widely suspected of having precluded any more such surveys.

Those uniquely North Korean difficulties were compounded by the usual turf battles among ministries and differing interests between rural and central authorities. In addition, the authors note that there was “a heavy focus on materials rather than advice. This is particularly challenging for NGOs reared on the notion that ‘teach a man to fish and you feed him for lifetime.’ North Koreans insisted not only that they knew how to fish, but that Kim Il-sung had invented fishing.”

Michael Schloms, a German NGO specialist, argues that European organizations approached their task with different objectives. Since aid was intended to change the North Korean mind-set — to “open their minds” — the “concrete goals of assistance, whether relief, rehabilitation, or structural reform, are secondary.” But for other groups, which focused on actually changing the situation on the ground, running the North Korean gauntlet “turned organizations once disposed to help into opponents of the regime.” Strict controls on NGOs have increased donor fatigue, helped catalyze advocacy groups take up the issue of human rights in North Korea, and raised the bar for Pyongyang as it tries to win international acceptance.

In other words — and ironically — North Korea’s obstructionism has only made it more difficult to secure its most important objective: the survival of the current leadership. Snyder concludes, “by imposing strict controls on international aid workers in ways that often prevented humanitarian NGOs from fulfilling their mission to North Korea, the North Korean authorities have succeeded in stimulating an international response that has further eroded prospects for North Korea to achieve its fundamental goal of regime survival.”

This dilemma will become sharper in the weeks and months ahead. North Korea’s economic difficulties are not going to go away. The country will continue to be reliant on the international community for vital support and assistance, at a time of increasing demands for aid elsewhere, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. If the six-party talks bear fruit, the resulting deal will invariably include economic assistance and humanitarian aid. If — or rather, when — those arrangements are institutionalized, then the issues examined in “Paved with Good Intentions” will become even more pressing. If the regime collapses, then the situation would become even more urgent still. We won’t be able to say we weren’t forewarned.

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