Update March 16, 2019 – see Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) expected to return to DPRK after four-year absence.
Original posting January 16, 2018 – International medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), best known for its projects in war-torn regions and developing countries affected by endemic diseases, has recently recruited a DPRK programme adviser to its MSF-Australia office in Sydney.
Sources have told NKhumanitarian that Fabio Forgione, who is currently listed as an Advocacy and Public Affairs Advisor with MSF-Australia, has been given the task of examining the options and context for re-entering the DPRK.
He is understood to be consulting in Australia and Seoul with academics and others who have specialist knowledge of the country.
Those experts will no doubt remind him that MSF’s last major involvement in the DPRK ended in very public and controversial circumstances.
MSF pulled out of the country in 1998 at the height of the famine there. Its press release announcing its withdrawal called on donors “to review their aid policy towards the DPRK.”
MSF’s objective had been to provide humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable in the DPRK but found it “impossible to deliver aid in a principled and accountable manner.”
Behind its call on donors to review their aid policy was MSF’s accusation that food was being diverted from people in need and being given to the military and other politically important groups.
These issues go to the heart of the debate over humanitarian aid to the DPRK, as Dr Emma Campbell reminds us in her paper “Famine in North Korea: humanitarian policy in the late 1990s” (as a PDF file).
What should be done when there are suspicions that aid is being diverted away from the most needy by the authorities or other third parties, and being used by Pyongyang to serve political and military ends?
MSF’s answer was that this left “no humanitarian space whatsoever” for work in the DPRK, according to Professor Hazel Smith in her 2002 special report “Overcoming Humanitarian Dilemmas in the DPRK”.
Perhaps to underline that point, MSF instead opened an office in South Korea and from 2002 until 2006 worked with Korean refugees inside China while monitoring the work of the other humanitarian agencies that continued to operate in the DPRK.
After a long absence, MSF started working again in the DPRK from 2012 but this time in a very limited medical training role.
Despite their most recent engagement with the DPRK being abruptly ended in 2015, MSF’s new DPRK programme adviser will be hopeful that conditions for humanitarian work in the country are improving.
He will find many difficulties ahead. The reports of external expert observers cited above, as well as MSF’s own internal reports, draw attention to its limited experience and its patchy record in its projects in the DPRK.
So it is unclear what lies behind this latest rethink by MSF. But its troubled history of engagement with the DPRK over the last 20 years suggests there will not be an immediate return to the country
Asked to comment on a draft of this article, an ex-aid worker familiar with the situation on the Korean Peninsula thought MSF’s latest initiative is likely to be preparation in case of conflict and/or a mass refugee situation developing there.
“If that is the context for the MSF review”, they added, “then any new MSF project in the DPRK would probably involve working with the DPRK Government and/or the South Korean authorities…. It would also require close coordination with the Chinese Government.”
A question MSF’s new DPRK programme adviser will have to answer is whether that scenario fits into MSF’s “standard typology of crisis.”
Binet, Laurence. 2016. MSF and North Korea 1995-1998. Sydney: MSF Australia