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Late on the night of 29/30 August 2016, devastating floods hit six counties in North Hamgyong province. The flooding was caused by a pulse of water, created by very heavy rain, flowing down the Tumen River flood plain creating a violent torrent of water that washed away people, buildings, animals and crops. The situation was aggravated by Typhoon Lionrock raising sea lavels and preventing the flood water discharging into the East Sea/Sea of Japan. The floods lasted until 2 September. It affected 600,000 people with more than 500 being reported dead or missing.
The floods forced nearly 70,000 to flee their homes. A total of over 29,800 dwellings were damaged including the complete collapse of more than 11,600 houses. At least 900 production and public buildings were destroyed or damaged, according to sources. The scale of the flood disaster was “beyond anything experienced by local officials” said a UNICEF official at the time.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) went further, describing the devastating floods as the “biggest cataclysm” to effect the DPRK since Liberation [from the Japanese] more than 70 years ago.
There was a swift emergency response from both UNICEF and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The IFRC worked through the DPRK Red Cross Society mobilising staff and volunteers from 1 September 2016 though to 11 September 2016 for immediate aid operations that included rapid assessment, evacuation, search and rescue, first aid and to distribute 7,000 non-food items.
On 13 September 2016 the IFRC released Swiss Francs (CHF) 506,810 to meet the humanitarian needs of 20,000 people.
On 20 September 2016 the IFRC launched an Emergency Appeal for CHF 15,199,723 to support 28,000 people for 12 months but quickly updated the number to be helped to 330,000 people for 12 months.
The discouraging news is that during the 14 months that have elapsed since the initial flood Emergency Appeal was launched, the IFRC has twice had to reduce the amount of money its Emergency Appeal was seeking due to lack of support from donors. Not even the initial need for coal in the winter of 2016/2017 could be addressed due to funding contraints.
The IFRC’s most recent revised Emergency Appeal seeks CHF 5,037,707 to deliver assistance and support to 110,000 people (27,500 households) which is a reduction from the 330,000 people (82,500 households) that was originally planned. This is the second revision of its Emergency Appeal budget; in January the IFRC issued its first revised Emergency Appeal which reduced the amount sought from CHF 15,199,723 to CHF 7,421,586.
Despite this latest reduction in the Emergency Appeal budget to CHF 5,037,707, which is just one-third of the amount originally planned, there is still a funding gap of CHF 250,832 in the amount needed to carry out even the reduced emergency relief. The IFRC explains that “due to low appeal coverage, the original proposed interventions are being revised in consultation with [the North Korean Red Cross Society]. Priority will be given to the most vulnerable households identified in the target municipalities, as well as vulnerabilities of individual or specific groups.”
In its needs assessment, the IFRC is concentrating on 5 areas:
- Health: This responsibility is shared. The Government of the DPRK is responsible for building new health facilities while two UN agencies, the World Food Programme (WTF) and UNICEF, are responsible for the supply of essential medicine. The IFRC plan to cover other additional needs such as supply of basic medical kits (for community clinics and midwives) and solar power systems (for heating, hot water and light). The latter are needed because of the long and very cold winter and the unreliable electricity supply infrustructure.
- WASH (WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene): In this flood emergency the main WASH element is to ensure the availability of safe drinking water. To do this requires the rehabilitation of damaged pumping stations and the contruction of new gravity fed water supply systems as an alternative to shallow wells that were contaminated or rendered unuseable. Hygiene promotion is an obvious urgent and high priority in flood affected communities until water supply and sanitation systems are restored to safe functioning.
- Shelter: In the first months, there was an immediate need to supply shelter for families whose homes were destroyed while finding the resources to build new homes and repair damaged ones.
- Disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction: The IFRC says that “affected communities had very limited preparedness for a disaster and even less capacity in disaster response as they were not exposed to disasters in recent history.”
- National Society Capacity Building: This involves a wide range of activities including replenishment of emergency items and equipment, acquiring of additional equipment (vehicles, computers, communications support, etc), and training of staff and volunteers to increase their effectiveness and capacities for the next disaster.
There is a recognition by the IFRC that UN Security Council Sanctions against the DPRK will impact its humanitarian aid operations. It notes that sanctions “will potentially increase delivery times of humanitarian aid … as all items have to be crosschecked with the sanctions item list.” It adds that “a provision for this has been included in our plans.”
 IFRC Emergency Plan of Action (EPoA) DPRK Flood in North Hamgyong (1 November 2017) – http://adore.ifrc.org/Download.aspx?FileId=175386
 Reliefweb: Report from IFRC – https://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-peoples-republic-korea/democratic-people-s-republic-koreanorth-hamgyong-province-2
The practice of governments using humanitarian organisations and its workers as spies is a contravention of international principles and threatens the wellbeing of legitimate aid and development workers. It is seen as a violation of the basic trust between a government and its civic sector.
Posing as a Red Cross worker is against the Geneva Conventions because it puts humanitarian workers at risk and undermines the neutrality of the Red Cross. If it results in death or serious injury in an international armed conflict it is a war crime.
A notorious example of the improper use of the Red Cross emblem was by Colombian military intelligence officers during the 2008 rescue mission to free Ingrid Betancourt and her fellow hostages from the Farc. This action resulted in an apology to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) by the Colombian President who expressed “regret that this occured”. He said the incident had not been authorised.
Two recent examples of Western governments using humanitarian aid organisations to spy both involve the DPRK.
The first was the use by the U.S. military of a Christian NGO as a front for espionage in the DPRK. The revelation that the Pentagon used an NGO and unwitting humanitarian volunteers for intelligence gathering was the result of a detailed investigation by The Intercept and picked up by main stream media including the Huffington Post. The next seven paragraphs are extracted from The Intercept’s account of its investigation.
On May 10, 2007, during an award ceremony presided over by President George W. Bush to honour the nation’s most accomplished community service leaders, one of the recipients was an evangelical Christian who was the Colorado-based founder of a multimillion-dollar humanitarian organisation.
Kay Hiramine’s NGO, Humanitarian International Services Group, or HISG, won special praise from the president for having demonstrated how, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a private charity could step in quickly in response to a crisis.
But Hiramine was a Pentagon spy, alleges The Intercept, whose NGO was funded through a highly classified Defense Department program. HISG was established shortly after 9/11, when Hiramine led a group of three friends in creating a humanitarian organisation that they hoped could provide disaster relief and sustainable development in poor and war-torn countries around the world, according to the organisation’s incorporation documents.
In its first two years, HISG was little more than a fledgling faith-based charity. Just after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, Hiramine and his friends shipped medical supplies to a hospital there. By 2003, HISG had collaborated with a small Pentagon group called the Afghanistan Reachback Office, which was set up to coordinate reconstruction activities.
That same year the Pentagon had set up its highly classified espionage program to increase human intelligence operations abroad. These Defense Department intelligence operations primarily focused on counter terrorism, but the efforts also extended to Iran and DPRK, where the military sought intelligence on those countries’ nuclear programs. It looked for ways to provide cover for these espionage operations and Hiramine’s group was one of several NGOs used by the Pentagon in this way. Some, like HISG, already existed as fledgling organisations, while others were created from scratch by the Pentagon.
At the time the Pentagon’s espionage program launched, HISG had been responsible for many shipments of medical equipment, clothing, and disaster relief supplies around the world. On at least one occasion in the period between 2004 and 2006, Hiramine, through HISG, helped coordinate a humanitarian shipment to DPRK. The Pentagon encouraged Hiramine to develop the NGO’s links with DPRK and tasked Hiramine with gathering the intelligence it needed inside the country using HISG’s access.
In all, HISG operated in more than 30 countries, significantly funded by the Pentagon, until it was disbanded in 2013. Aside from Hiramine and possibly other top executives, it seems that those who worked for HISG were never witting of their involvement in a Pentagon intelligence program, or that Hiramine was working for the U.S. government.
Using humanitarian and aid workers for gathering intelligence has always been risky and the policy of U.S. intelligence agencies on this issue is unclear and equivocal to say the least. At a public hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SCSI) in February 1996, the then Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) testified that it had not been the CIA’s policy or practice for many years to use clergy, journalists, or Peace Corps volunteers as a cover to conduct espionage. However he said that it would be unwise to “foreclose such use altogether”. Since the mid-1970s, use of these groups for operational purposes had required the approval of the DCI.
After hearing from representatives of the groups involved, the committee inserted language in the FY 1997 intelligence authorisation bill stating that it was the “policy of the United States” that journalists would not be used for “purposes of collecting intelligence.” However, the new law provided that the president or the DCI could waive this policy, so long as the two intelligence committees were advised. The law also said it should not be construed to prohibit “the voluntary cooperation of any person.” This action essentially left in place the existing policy with respect to operational use of clergy and Peace Corps volunteers.
It appears that this policy was loosened significantly in counter-terrorism efforts after the 9/11 attacks. In any case, except for American Peace Corps volunteers, the policy did not include humanitarian and aid workers working for U.S. non-profits and other NGOs.
In recent years, the risk of using legitimate aid workers as cover for spying has had deadly repercussions.
In 2011, the CIA directed a Pakistani doctor to collect DNA samples of the suspected family members of Osama bin Laden under the guise of a hepatitis vaccination program in Abbottabad, Pakistan. After the raid, the Pakistani doctor was arrested and imprisoned by Pakistani authorities, and the Taliban later killed several medical professionals who were trying to conduct polio eradication campaigns, along with their guards. The Taliban claimed the vaccination program was part of a Western intelligence plot.
As The New York Times reported in 2012, a further reaction to the CIA operation has been that vaccination teams were banned in some areas of Pakistan. A consequence of CIA actions is that cases of polio, which has been eradicated in almost every country in the world, have spiked in Pakistan in recent years.
In January 2013, the deans from Tulane, Emory, Columbia and other U.S. universities wrote to President Obama about the assassination of vaccination workers. They also compared the use of vaccine programs to the CIA’s early infiltration of the Peace Corps, saying that in both cases, the practice had to be stopped to protect volunteers and gain access where people are most vulnerable to disease. As a result of this pressure, a White House Homeland Security adviser informed U.S. public health school deans in 2014 that CIA Director John Brennan had issued an order in August 2013 forbidding the use of vaccination programs as cover to gather intelligence or genetic evidence.
It would have been hoped that other Western countries might follow the U.S lead on this. However the second and very recent example of governments using humanitarian aid organisations to spy involves another U.S. Christian NGO but this time one that operates out of South Korea.
Unlike the discredited and now disbanded HISG, the Eugene Bell Foundation (EBF) has gone public to express its unhappiness that NGOs in South Korea have been “grabbed by the collar” by the ROK government to act inappropriately when operating in DPRK.
In June 2017, NK News (see the full story here) reported that the South Korean government has asked non-governmental organisations to submit “unfair” reports on North Korea, including confidential information on local patients, in exchange for approving humanitarian aid exchanges with the DPRK.
Speaking at a news conference in June 2017, held after a three-week trip to DPRK, Stephen Linton, Chairman of the Eugene Bell Foundation, said Seoul was asking for sensitive information from NGOs that many were not comfortable handing over.
EBF was also asked to provide information on North Korean patients assessed by the DPRK Ministry of Public Health, as well as general information from inside the country, Linton said.
“I could endure [the government agency] asking about the North Korean situation,” he told media. “But I think it’s unfair that they asked whether [North Korean people] have changed their thoughts about the leader, or if there is anything peculiar that wasn’t covered by newspapers.”
Eugene Bell program director Jinnie Hong explained that the Ministry of Unification (MoU)’s Humanitarian Assistance Division was insisting it could only approve shipments of medical supplies once a “completed” report was provided, and that they faced “deadlock” with the South Korean goverment over this.
The Eugene Bell Foundation is a Christian charitable organisation registered in the U.S. that seeks to meet the special needs of citizens of the DPRK at home and abroad. It sponsors programs, projects and exchanges of a humanitarian nature with a focus on medicine and the diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis (TB) in particular. We have posted previous articles on the rising rates of TB in the DPRK here and here and with EBF’s work to combat it here and here. This latest incident is not the first time EBF has experienced difficulties working through the South Korean government.
The NGO visited DPRK from May 2 to May 23, 2017, to treat North Korean patients with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), six months after a visit in Autumn 2016, a trip during which the NGO, with permission from the U.S. government, provided resistance testing GeneXpert machines to North Korean doctors.
The DPRK Ministry of Public Health has also “officially requested” that the foundation expand its assistance project to the east coast region of North Korea, and Linton is planning to send prefabricated hospital wards engineered to prevent the spread of the infectious disease to the North, which will be delivered this summer.
Linton said that NGOs in South Korea had been “grabbed by the collar”by the government, arguing that South Korean intelligence had too much say in permitting visits to the North and over NGO work.
“I would like to ask a favor of [the Moon Jae-in government] that another agency should control the activities of the NGO, not the organisation who is interested in espionage,” Linton said.
He added that the civilian exchanges would be “meaningless” if South Korean intelligence had “absolute authority” over NGO projects.
 Article 38(1) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I provides: “It is prohibited to make improper use of the distinctive emblem of the red cross, red crescent or red lion and sun.”
 Under Article 8(2)(b)(vii) of the 1998 ICC Statute, “[m]aking improper use … of the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions, resulting in death or serious personal injury” is a war crime in international armed conflicts.
 Partly Cloudy: Ethics in War, Espionage, Covert Action, and Interrogation. 2016. David L. Perry, Rowman & Littlefield. p. 157.