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The typhoon, which made landfall near the southern island of Jeju on Friday night [October 4], rapidly swept along the country’s west coast on Saturday before heading towards North Korea in the afternoon.
At its peak, Lingling reached wind speeds of 196 kph on Saturday morning on South Korea’s southern coast, making the typhoon the fifth-strongest to hit the country since 1959, according to the country’s weather agency.
It struck North Korea at 14:00 local time (05:00 GMT) on Saturday, continuing through to midnight on Sunday [October 6]. Reports from KCNA, the official news agency of the DPRK, said that five people had died and three others were injured. The typhoon left 460 houses and 15 public buildings destroyed with 46,200 hectares of farmland damaged or inundated.
Australia’s ABC and other western news outlets said that according to an earlier KNCA report, leader Kim Jong-un “urgently convened” an emergency meeting on Friday [October 4] to discuss disaster prevention efforts and scolded government officials who he described as “helpless against the typhoon, unaware of its seriousness and seized with easy-going sentiment”.
The supreme leader called for his military to drive national efforts to minimise damage from the typhoon, which he said would be an “enormous struggle” that would require the entire country to step up, the KCNA report said.
The country was paying “primary attention” to protect agricultural crops and prevent damage in dikes, dams and reservoirs, KCNA added.
It also said officials were also moving residents in areas vulnerable to flooding and deploying “watchmen” to monitor bridges, buildings and houses.
International aid and disaster relief organisations had been monitoring the development of Typhoon Lingling as it approached the DPRK. They anticipated that as many as 5.3 million people in the country were potentially at risk.
In response, the DPRK Red Cross activated its early warning and preparedness systems. With the help of its extensive network of volunteers, it issued storm alerts to potentially affected communities in North and South Hwanghae, as well as up to 4-5 additional provinces based on the forecasts. Red Cross volunteers and national and provincial disaster response teams were put on standby to help with search and rescue, evacuation, first aid, distribution of emergency items and activities to prevent the spread of water-borne diseases.
To support this preparedness work, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) released 56,000 Swiss francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to help mobilise emergency supplies such as tarpaulins, cooking sets, quilts, hygiene kits, water containers, water purification tablets and shelter tools. These items are in strategically-placed warehouses throughout the country and can be quickly dispatched as needed.
Their concerns about the potentially serious impact that Typhoon Lingling could have when it made landfall on the Peninsula were justified.
In 2018, despite not even making landfall, Typhoon Soulik caused widespread damage with as many as 86 North Koreans being killed and over 65,000 displaced by the heavy rains and flooding.
In 2016, the flood damage caused by Typhoon Lionrock in North Hamgyong Province during August/September was described as the “biggest cataclysm” to affect the DPRK since Liberation [in 1945], according to KCNA.
UN sources estimated that more than 500 people were killed 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 DPRK is vulnerable to natural disasters, especially floods, due in part to deforestation and poor planning and infrastructure. In comparison to earlier typhoons, the impact of Lingling appears, on present information, to be manageable through resources mobilised within the country.
Nonetheless, the damage to infrastructure may be significant and the full extent of crop damage and possible impact on food supplies is not known.
The World Food Programme (WFP) DPRK Country Brief for August 2019 is available on the UN’s Reliefweb site here (as a 2-page PDF file).
US$ 16 million September 2019 – February 2020 Net Funding Requirement.
557,930 people assisted in August 2019.
1,425 metric tonnes of food distributed in August 2019.
• WFP nutrition programmes assisted 6,316 children in boarding schools, 324,996 children in nurseries, 101,100 children in kindergartens, 2,972 children in paediatric wards/hospitals, 114,513 pregnant and breastfeeding women, and 8,034 Tuberculosis (TB) patients. Nutritional support is focused on areas of the country where food security and nutrition are fragile and reaches 60 counties across nine provinces every month.
• Operational plans are currently being reviewed based on the findings of the rapid food security assessment that was conducted in April 2019. WFP has engaged with the Government and the donor community regarding its plans to assist more people, focusing on the most vulnerable children and pregnant and breastfeeding women.
• WFP urged donors to support humanitarian needs in DPR Korea, estimating that 300,000 metric tonnes of food is needed in support of those most affected by ongoing food shortages.
• In August, WFP conducted a technical mission to assess the existing capacity of facilities producing corn soya blend for nutrition programmes. The findings of this assessment will help to determine what resources are needed to maintain the production line over the next 10 years. WFP was accompanied on the mission by the manufacturer of the production equipment.
Previous monthly DPRK Country Briefs on the Reliefweb site are linked to below
In May 2019, in close coordination with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Government, WFP began providing fortified cereals and biscuits to drug-resistant and drug-sensitive TB patients, in North and South Hamgyong, Kangwon and Ryanggang counties through provincial and county hospitals, as well as to TB outpatients.
TB, particularly drug-resistant TB (DR-TB), is a serious public health issue for the DPRK that needs long-term and well-resouced provision for treatment and prevention. See earlier posting by us (TB rates on the rise in the DPRK warns NGO andResources on Tuberculosis (TB) and Drug-Resistant TB (DRTB) in the DPRK).
TB treatment programmess are badly affected by sanctions regimes directed at the DPRK, including those imposed by the UN and thes autonomous sanctions imposed by countries such as the U.S. and South Korea (see Sanctions against the DPRK threatens to make the lives of the most vulnerable even worse and Eugene Bell Foundation declares medical emergency: Lives of more than 1,500 North Korean MDR-TB patients at risk because South Korea blocks humanitarian aid).
During his four years in-country with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Thomas Fisler saw more of the “real,” unfiltered North Korea than just about any foreigner.
He talks about the DPRK and shares his experiences working there to bring aid to the most disadvantaged parts of the country, in NK News Podcast Episode 46, How international agencies in North Korea get things done (November 12, 2018).
The podcast is an audio recording of his interview with Daniel Wertz.
Thomas Fisler is a retired Swiss diplomat who served as Director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in the DPRK from 2013-2017.
The NKhumanitarian website has transcribed the interview for the benefit of our readers. Some very short sections of the interview have been omitted from the transcription if the discussion is not directly relevant to our focus on North Korean aid operations and humanitarian issues. These omitted sections are flagged in the text below.
While the site editors have tried to accurately relay the exact discussion in the interview, there may be some minor discrepancies.
NK News interview with Thomas Fisler, retired Swiss diplomat who served as Director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in the DPRK from 2013-2017.
Interviewer: Today’s guest, Thomas Fisler retired from the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. He was Switzerland’s resident representative to North Korea and Director of Cooperation for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, SDC. Based in Pyongyang from 2013 to 2017, in this capacity, he was in charge of Switzerland’s humanitarian aid program focusing on food security, agroforestry, water and sanitation, and disaster risk reduction. Mr Fisler has a Diploma in Corporate Business Management from the Swiss Technical Training and Management Institute and a Diploma in Civil Engineering and Construction Management from the Swiss Technical College of Applied Sciences and Civil Engineering and Construction as well as the IRF Diploma in Senior Road Management from the University of Birmingham. Welcome Thomas.
Mr Fisler: Thank you. Welcome yes.
Interviewer: Thanks for being here today. So you worked in North Korea for four years in humanitarian aid and development assistance. But before going to the DPRK you had performed similar work in Pakistan, Nepal and in India. So, I’m interested to hear from you in which ways your previous experience prepared you for your time in North Korea.
Mr Fisler: Before I went to North Korea someone told me that whenever you get there forget what you know in this world and I would, by today, somewhat undersign that kind of statement
Interviewer: Wow. So in what ways did you feel unprepared for your time in North Korea?
Mr Fisler: Good question. I didn’t know how to deal with the broader context. What will I be allowed to say? How close will I be watched? That kind of thing was very, at the beginning, very uncomfortable.
Interviewer: If you were to meet your successor or anybody in fact who was going to work in development or any kind of aid in North Korea, what would you tell them? What kind of advice would you give that you didn’t have?
Mr Fisler: I think keep on asking questions. I think that’s the key, that I would recommend to everyone. And ask the same questions to many different people to get close to an answer. You can ask five people and get five different answers.
Interviewer: Could you tell us about some of the different projects and programs that you oversaw as head of SDC in North Korea?
Mr Fisler: As you mentioned we were engaged in the WASH projects – so that’s water and sanitation – in mainly rural communities. And it went along with some hygiene promotion – children learning how to wash their hands and stuff like that. So that was our role. We did that together with, strangely enough, the Ministery of City Management. Why they are in charge of rural communities, I never really found out.
Interviewer: Hygiene promotion. Let’s talk about that for a minute there. North Korea – they pride themselves on their provision of public health services to the population. Maybe it’s not as effective as they want it to be? But they certainly talk about that a lot and you see that in their propaganda. They even send doctors to African countries. In the past it was like a free charity service. Now they do it to make foreign currency. I’m surprised to hear that there are still people or children in North Korea who don’t know to wash their hands. Is that not something they are taught?
Mr Fisler: I think it’s necessary for young children, definitely. And it’s occasionally also needed right across the board. I would also say that it’s needed in our society once in a while!
Interviewer: Sure, it’s always good to get that message out.
Mr Fisler: Yes.
Interviewer: So how did the SDC promote that message in North Korea. So obviously you weren’t the one who directly went to schools to show young children how to wash hands. What’s the practical…
Mr Fisler: It was done through teachers; it was done through posters mainly. We would make, together with the North Koreans, appropriate posters which then would be distributed as leaflets or posters in schools. Leaflets in the houses and so on. It was maybe also about the understanding – the meaning and the importance – of having access to clean water.
Interviewer: Now I’ve been following North Korea for about 20 years and it always surprises me that water and sanitation seem to be perennial problems in the DPRK. That there are very, there’s a wide range of different organisation who’ve gone into North Korea and who are working on water supply and waste-water management. I wonder why is this? This is on the one hand, this is a country with nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. On the other hand, there are many rural communities without an effective water supply. Can you comment on that?
Mr Fisler: It’s definitely such that there is a great scarcity of access to clean water. Not only in very rural communities but also in sort of more urban settings. Even Pyongyang, at times, has water shortages. And so, I think it’s all about access to clean water. They all go to rivers and nearby sources and so on. That’s possible, but in winter this is also a very tough one too.
Interviewer: So what is the major source of clean water supply in rural areas? Is it from underground water sources?
Mr Fisler: Basically the usual two – it’s springs up in the hills and then there’s ground water. Depending on the location either one is an option.
Interviewer: So as the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation were you also helping to dig wells or clean out wells or things like that?
Mr Fisler: Yes, we would occasionally make some refurbishment on existing wells and we would make a pipe system in older communities. Dig a pipe system, ground water fed, or with gravity.
Interviewer: And in the cities was that also mainly ground water for clean water supply?
Mr Fisler: Yes. To my knowledge most of the cities have deep wells or shallow wells from which they pump the water. Then the usual problem – that the pumps are not functioning, the electricity is scarce, and things like that.
Interviewer: So when Pyongyang has a water shortage it’s because of these problems that you mention: pumps and electricity, for example.
Mr Fisler: Yes and at times, especially in the rainy season, I think the treatment stations are a little bit overloaded because the river is bringing very very muddy and sandy water.
Interviewer: And what about treatment or waste-water? Is there any system of filtration or treatment or chemical or other treatment to take out the larger impurities? Or does it just go straight into the river and the ocean?
Mr Fisler: Yes. If it’s a piped system unfortunately it does, yes. I think Pyongyang does have some treatment stations. But other cities don’t, so it goes direct. But the majority are still served by pit latrines. The solid waste in the pit latrines is of great value as fertiliser and it’s being used 100 percent as that. For me it is something new – in other countries I haven’t experienced it to that level.
Interviewer: Okay. So pit latrines you’ve mentioned. So what about septic tanks? Do they use them as well?
Mr Fisler: Yes. So by pit latrines, septic tanks – they are different types of technical solutions to these things. Yes. Then whatever is left, as a solid waste, is being brought onto the farmland.
Interviewer: Now I’ve read that that can be dangerous using ‘night soil’ for fertiliser because it can spread pathogens. I don’t know if I’m thinking of cholera or what? Can you tell us more about that?
Mr Fisler: If the cycle is too short, in terms of time, this is a big issue. So, we promote…what we call the double pit latrine so that the effluent can settle down and biodegrade itself over five or six months.
Interviewer: That’s quite long…
Mr Fisler: And … so that’s where you have two pits. You use one actively and the other one is to settle down, and dig it out, and empty it. And then you change again. That’s been proven to be a very successful system.
Interviewer: As the head of the agency, the representative in North Korea did you mainly have to visit sites to check how projects were going and how the development was?
Mr Fisler: Yes. I think that was the, for me, the interesting part – that I had access to all these different communities across the country and I equally had access in these [inaudible] on more like technical or policy levels as well. So, it was sort of … from the base to the top I was able to get in touch with everyone and that was maybe the interesting thing – to connect the experiences out in the rural areas into higher levels.
Interviewer: When you say ‘the base to the top’ are you talking about the different levels of North Korean Government, the local level…because I want to talk a bit about that?
Mr Fisler: Yes.
Interviewer: What was your experience of working with the North Korean Government? What were some surprisingly easy parts?
Mr Fisler: I think the efficiency. If they tell you that this is what we are going to do, [to] give an example, digging a couple of kilometres of pipeline or in agroforestry project do some tree planting, it’s eventually done. Overnight almost! The way they are able to mobilise workforces is impressive. It’s definitely impressive.
Interviewer: And what was surprisingly difficult about working with North Korean government?
Mr Fisler: Understanding the ‘dos and don’ts’. Getting to learn that, at the very end, everyone is loyal to the system rather than loyal to a foreigner and that makes it occasionally quite difficult.
Interviewer: So, you mean that the people who work within your office, because they’re all citizens of the state, they’re always going to be more loyal to the North Korean Government than to whatever your agency tells them to do?
Mr Fisler: Yes. Clearly. Understandably as well. Yes
Interviewer: Where there ever times when you had meetings or negotiations with the North Korea Government and you tried to be stubborn to say: ‘listen this is very important. I have to go in this way’. But the answer you received back was: ‘well we can’t do it that way because XYZ. Or maybe no reason, just we can’t do it that way’?
Mr Fisler: Well, the principle on my side is that we are very transparent in what do we want and why. I think key is for everyone to understand there is no hidden message in the way we go about. And that already is an excellent door opener. But I’ll give an example, why isn’t it possible to work in Chagang Province, where no agency is actually able to work? So, then the formal answer in the meeting would be: ‘for reasons of national security foreign agencies can’t work there’ – ‘full stop’. And then that’s the kind of answer [where there is] no need to ask further.
Interviewer: Was there ever an experience where you had, where you felt after long negotiations, long discussions, that you got what you wanted? That you were able to accomplish something that initially it was not possible, but then it became possible?
Mr Fisler: Working in difficult, inaccessible, very remote villages, off the beaten track, off the main roads. You know you drive, whatever, one full day out of Pyongyang. You’ve got to go 3 hours, on a very bad road, to the last village in the valley – that kind of thing over time was possible
Interviewer: So you mean at the beginning the Government didn’t want you to go to those small villages, but in the end you were able to go there?
Mr Fisler: Yes, that would be one of the examples, yes.
Interviewer: Is that because there seems to be a tension in North Korea: on one hand the Government wants to show its best side. It wants to show the good side to foreigners. But on the other hand, North Korea needs that help, needs that development assistance?
Mr Fisler: I think that’s the conflict many of the Government officials have. Indeed, and the more it gets operational the more they are keen to show you their actual needs and are also very much welcoming all the support [that we provide]. Once you are on an operational level, they’re much more ready to discuss real problems and find joint solutions. It’s a nice experience, basically.
Interviewer: So your organisation, you’ve said it’s been there for more than 20 years now. So do you feel that, by now, that there is a good working relationship, a good development of trust with the North Korean Government? Or do they have to start from zero again every time there is a new Resident Representative put in place?
Mr Fisler: No, I think, clearly, Switzerland has an excellent image within North Korea, within the Government, because I think we are known not to have any political agenda in what we do. Our aid, humanitarian aid, is genuinely for the sake of, and the benefit of, the people. And in that sense, we are recognised. And the way we do, and what we do [is] very, very highly [recognised]. One thing, that is maybe essential to know, is that over the years we’ve been steadily providing aid. And this is occasionally not so much known but [we provide aid] in the range of, and it would vary a bit, between 15 and 25 percent of the entire official aid coming into the country. So, in that sense SDC is a big player in terms of funding.
Interviewer: Yes. That’s very high. I imagine since you lived in Pyongyang you probably knew a lot of the people from other outside aid organisations who are working in North Korea?
Mr Fisler: Yes. Of course. You get to know everyone, all different people from the embassies, from other aid organisations. There aren’t many, maybe six INGOs operational. [But SDC] as a bilateral donor … [and at] the same time an implementing agency – that’s an exception. I think only Switzerland is doing that – the double role of donor and executing its own projects. Also [we] had some kind of structured sector working groups where we would join let’s say, a WASH sector working group, where we would discuss and align issues in common [between organisations].
Interviewer: And did you find that your experiences aligned very much with their own experiences? Or were there some organisations that for some reason had curious exceptions?
Mr Fisler: Of course, I believe that we were in many ways the privileged by the way the Government would treat us, welcome us. We had, for instance, no limit or restrictions in doing field visits. Whereas some of the INGOs would be limited, in that sense, in terms of where they go, or the number of times they would be allowed to go.
Interviewer: Even though there were no limits, were you encouraged or instructed to officially notify the North Korean Government before you made a site visit? Or could you go wherever you wanted to when you wanted to?
Mr Fisler: It was usually discussed in our weekly staff meetings, and that’s the usual programming that you plan a week ahead at least. So, we wouldn’t discuss on a Friday where to go on a Monday – definitely not. So, yes, it does need some lead time for a few days. You need some sort of passes to drive on the highway. These things are needed. Nonetheless, my staff would do that and I would not be involved in it. There would, practically, never be a problem.
Interviewer: Apart form your daily work what are some other unique challenges and obstacles of living in the DPRK?
Mr Fisler: Well, on the positive note I think it’s an excellent experience. The whole community of foreigners is like a big village and so the social bonding is very nice. You meet each other multiple times on social events and also on more formal meetings. And this over time gives you a feeling of being at home…
[Discussion of previous guest on NKNews known to Mr Fisler]
…that’s nice and that’s also across the board of all the different embassies who, maybe, otherwise would not that much talk to each other because of their political background.
Interviewer: I wonder, that must be partly, at least partly, a function of being, basically, socially excluded from interactions with North Koreans?
Mr Fisler: Fully agree. That was definitely the difficult part. With limitations [some interactions] over time, yes. But not easy.
Interviewer: How many locals worked in your office?
Mr Fisler: We had around, if you count each and every one, about 15.
Interviewer: Were you, did you go out to dinner with them sometimes after work? Or play golf or tennis? Or go for a mountain climbing adventure or something?
Mr Fisler: Yes. We would, we would [hold] events together, outings. We would go occasionally for a dinner, or a beer, or have even a party in our compound.
Interviewer: Oh! And that was possible?
Mr Fisler: That was possible. Definitely. I recall even making a party in our compound and inviting other people from the Ministries we worked together.
Interviewer: Were there any social things that you tried to do that were not possible?
Mr Fisler: Inviting North Koreans to my apartment for a dinner would have been difficult. Maybe they would have come if there would have been at least 2, 3 or 4 in a group. Individually – no.
Interviewer: I’d like to talk a little bit about your work in disaster risk reduction in the DPRK. That sounds very interesting. What types of disaster were the SDC mainly focused on?
Mr Fisler: Okay. It was basically expanding the agroforestry project into issues like slope stabilisation, in a broader sense – erosions of hillsides, and then also issues of river embankment erosion which needed to be addressed.
Interviewer: Right. I understand that deforestation became a big issue in the 1990s with the lack of access to fuel heating and cooking fuel. So, how is that reforestation project going in North Korea these days. Is it working well?
Mr Fisler: Yes. It’s on an excellent footing and over time I think we were able to get to a level which, I would say, is the best you can achieve in a development project. [Which] is, if policy follows practice and not the other way round; meaning we were able to show how to do it differently. And out of that, a national agroforestry policy was established and approved by the legislation which, I believe, was a big success.
Interviewer: And were you able to actually visit an area after a disaster happened?
Mr Fisler: Yes, back in 2016 we had this big typhoon up in the north area called Musan, an area which prior to that event was not accessible. So, yes, I was there multiple times immediately after the disaster, and later on as well
Interviewer: And was the damage there made worse because of deforestation?
Mr Fisler: Clearly, yes, made worse. However, if …[it] would have been all well forested, there would have been still quite an impact … from such a typhoon
Interviewer: You mentioned slope stability. Lack of slope stability – can that lead to avalanches and mud slides and things like that?
Mr Fisler: Yes. It’s then the mudslides, it’s the flooding, it’s the destruction of the lower level agricultural land being made not usable any more.
Interviewer: So what was done to help Musan, or the area around there, after the typhoon? How did they repair it?
Mr Fisler: In the first instance it was necessary to reconstruct housing for 130,000 families. So that was an impressive exercise. Once again, the level of the way they can mobilise labour force to achieve those things was, for me, outstanding, remarkable. They literally built housing units for 130,000 families within two and a half to three months.
Interviewer: So did SDC take any direct part in that project?
Mr Fisler: Yes, we did. Along with other organisations. Key was to provide the roofing materials, CGI sheets, corrugated iron sheets, the kind of powder-coated or zinc coated. And they’re not produced in North Korea. So we had to import them from China. And, I think, that was the big task, the major challenge – how to import things. In our case [it] was something like 600 tonnes of those roofing materials
Interviewer: Now under the current sanctions regime that would be almost impossible because almost any metal product can’t be brought into North Korea. Is that right?
Mr Fisler: It was already difficult at the time! I would say today it is certainly more difficult. But there is always some ways and some solutions.
Interviewer: So this was in 2016
Mr Fisler: Yes. Late 2016, yes.
Interviewer: And when did you leave the DPRK?
Mr Fisler: Late, late October 2017. About 12 months ago.
Interviewer: So, the really heavy sanctions were already in place by the time you left. Were you noticing any of that impacting your projects?
Mr Fisler: Yes. It started impacting us in the delivery of certain materials. Issues liked submersible water pumps. There was also increasingly a self, how can I say, self-restriction by companies not wanting to be engaged in any way with North Korea, so we felt. And I learned from my colleagues that these things have become more difficult, increasingly more difficult, over the last one year.
Interviewer: Now that you’ve left the DPRK, could you share some of your own, what you consider, your own successes or satisfactory outcomes of your time there? What do you look back on with gladness?
Mr Fisler: Maybe there’s one thing that I brought – from my experiences in Nepal – is the introduction of gabions which are weaved wire baskets which you can fill up with stones and make retaining walls and stop soil erosion. So, these kinds of technology, how to weave those gabions, or wired baskets, is a technology which was not really known in North Korea. We applied it on a large scale… I sort of ‘visionary’ think, that in 20 years, from now this is going to be key in preventing erosion [in North Korea].
Interviewer: That’s interesting. I’ve never heard of that word before. Can you tell us how to spell it?
Mr Fisler: ‘Gabion’.
Interviewer: I’ll have to look it up later on. So, it’s a kind of a wire mesh basket in which you put stones and rocks and you can use it as a kind of a retaining wall?
Mr Fisler: Yes. That’s right. And over time vegetation takes over and after 20 years, if it’s galvanised wire, it stays 20 or more years, and eventually [the stone/rocks] settles in the vegetation roots.
Interviewer: Can these be made by hand or do they have to be machine produced?
Mr Fisler: Yes. That’s the interesting part. That it can be…and Nepal does that large scale over the last 30, 40 years – they can be handwoven and that’s a technology you need to know how to do it. So, we’ve had people going to Nepal and we’ve had actually a Nepali coming to North Korea to introduce how to weave those baskets.
Interviewer: Do they have a sufficient supply of that kind of wire in North Korea? Or does that need to be imported from somewhere?
Mr Fisler: It was imported from China. Though I think they could produce it, as well, in North Korea, it was maybe an issue of quality which made us import it from outside.
Interviewer: Now that you’ve left, what does SDC do in the DPRK? Is there a successor who has followed on? And are the same projects being continued or are there new projects?
Mr Fisler: By and large it is the same projects which are continuing. There is a bit of shift, or expanding additional, agroforestry as mentioned on disaster risk reduction…WASH projects continue because there’s a great need. We are trying to bring in aspects of protection into some of our projects. Let me give you an example. We’re funding Handicap International to assist people with disabilities [and to] connect that to disaster risk reduction. You can imagine that people which have hearing difficulties won’t be able to hear announcements…and making people aware on the principles of human rights. And I’m not talking on a political sense, but human rights such as access to clean water, access to food, access to health – these are the basic human rights which we believe that North Korea has its obligation, which still needs to be improved.
Interviewer: When you mention in North Korea, in discussion with North Korean officials, and you mentioned words like human rights, even in the context of access to water, access to sanitation, how is the reaction there? Are they sensitive to that?
Mr Fisler: If it is discussed in a more informal manner, more with people of which I was dealing with on an operational level, no problem there. If it gets to higher level meetings, then language matters. And then it might be a different issue.
Interviewer: What is the value-added that international aid and development organisation can do in North Korea that, for example, South Korean aid organisations probably cannot?
Mr Fisler: I think we are free of any political agenda of which any aid from South Korea would have an aspect to it. We can deliver aid with no other rationale than helping the people
Interviewer: We’re in this strange time period now in which strict international sanctions are still on, but relations are improving at least in terms of image and rhetoric. So what do you feel are the current and future prospects for cooperation with the DPRK Government?
Mr Fisler: I think every little window of opportunity should be used. In whichever way. And I think it’s also one of the things I have been doing now – enabling other aid organisations to get a foot into the door and establish projects. And there seems to be a bit of an opening to that. So I facilitate some of these connections through the fact that I still have good access to people in the Government.
Interviewer: Normally when you want to contact someone in North Korea do you have to call them or can you send them an email? Or do you fax them? How does that work?
Mr Fisler: Email is possible.
Interviewer: During your time have you seen any organisations or governments doing work in the DPRK that you think is not really advisable or is not likely to achieve any desired results?
Mr Fisler: Well I think anything that has a religious background maybe difficult, no, impossible to get something off the ground. And then we’re back again to the hidden agenda. So, if you do something out of purely religious motivation, that would be a wrong approach.
Interviewer: The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology have you ever been there?
Mr Fisler: Yes. I’ve been there a few times, yes.
Interviewer: Would that be an example of an organisation that has come from religious motivation?
Mr Fisler: I don’t know. They would best explain that. But certainly, they are very, very, limited in what they can deliver. They’re very contained, but doing an excellent work no doubt. But very controlled, very contained.
Interviewer: Isn’t that true for every organisation doing work in North Korea?
Mr Fisler: No. I would say, we’ve had quite open doors in where we would be working, which communities, which locations and also in terms of topic.
Interviewer: So you’ve felt much less constrained?
Mr Fisler: Definitely. In terms of free movement, I’ve never had any restrictions in free movement.
[Discussion on comparison between Myanmar and opening of the DPRK].
Interviewer: Do you have any last words of wisdom to share with any organisation or person who wants to do any good work in the DPRK?
Mr Fisler: I’ve got one personal experience which I sometimes quote and I think it describes the situation very well. I once said to one of my colleagues working with me, I said, ‘after four years if a stage has ten curtains, I’ve maybe seen behind curtain up to first three or four curtains’. And so he said, [and] I will never forget, he said, ‘I know exactly what you mean, I’m maybe on curtain number five’. Meaning admittedly, also for North Koreans, there are issues not clear to them.
Interviewer: Oh! So your interlocuter was a North Korean
Mr Fisler: To give an example, we’d drive across the country and I would see something and I would ask, ‘what is this over there?’. And then they would answer me, ‘I don’t know’. And I would think ‘here we go again’, they don’t want to tell me, and so on. But over the years, I started to conclude, that in many instances, they really didn’t know. I kind of concluded that there’s a fundamental difference in the educational system. They learn not to ask questions. I believe for many people [in North Korea], it’s more comfortable not to know certain things. And so you just blind it out, you ignore it, ‘I don’t want to know this. It could maybe put me into troubles’.
Interviewer: It’s a different way of seeing the world.
Mr Fisler: Yes, yes. Never say it’s true, I’ve see it on TV, I’ve read it in the newspaper. There’s much more [going on] behind them and that for me was an eye opener. Also getting the opportunity to see behind some of these curtains.
Interviewer: That’s great. Thank you very much. That’s a good place to leave it there. Thank you, Thomas, for joining us today.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has (so far) in 2019 requested, and been granted, two exemptions from UN sanctions for import into the DPRK of items to enable it to engage in planned humanitarian activities in the country.
Médecins Sans Frontières returned to the DPRK this year after a four-year absence as we wrote about here.
The first approval letter and annex (containing approved list of goods and services and planned shipment date) is for an exemption starting on 12 March 2019 and expiring on 14 February 2020.
The purpose is for “import of items into the DPRK by MSF to engage in humanitarian activities, in particular enabling the commencement of MSF’s medical project which primarily aims at improving the diagnostic and treatment of tuberculosis (TB) as well as multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) among the population of North Hamgyong Province; and addressing urgent and general medical needs at the community-level in the county of Kyongsong of North Hamgyong Province.”
The second approval letter and annex (containing approved list of goods and services and planned shipment date) is for an exemption starting on 23 September 2019 and expiring on 23 March 2020.
The purpose is for “import of [additional] items into the DPRK by MSF to engage in humanitarian activities, in particular enabling the proper implementation of a medical program in North Hamgyong Province which primarily aims at improving the diagnostic and treatment of tuberculosis as well as multi-drug resistant tuberculosis among the population of North Hamgyong Province; and addressing urgent and general medical needs of the population in the county of Kyongsong of North Hamgyong Province.”
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has provided nine ambulances to the DPRK to improve the survival chances of newborns, children and mothers.
The ambulances were delivered to the North’s Ministry of Public Health on September 11 for use in nine counties, it said.
“(They) will be used for the referral of emergency obstetric and newborn care as well as non-obstetric emergency cases from the community to County and Provincial Hospitals which are equipped to manage with quality services in nine convergence counties,” the fund said.
According to the UN’s Levels and Trends in Child Mortality Report 2019, the under-five mortality rate, or the deaths per 1,000 live births, in the DPRK stood at 18 last year, sharply down from 43 in 1990.
Despite the decline, three out of five of the remaining under-five deaths in the country are neonatal, UNICEF said, noting that 13 percent of deliveries still take place at home, not in health facilities, in rural areas of North Korea.
Seoul’s ongoing efforts to provide an $8 million humanitarian aid package to North Korea via the World Food Program and UNICEF (and the obstacles encountered) demonstrate the enormous resources necessary to navigate international sanctions against the North.
The problems with sanctions are explored in NK News Podcast Episode 88, How Sanctions on North Korea Impact Humanitarian Aid (July 26, 2019).
The podcast is an audio recording of an interview with Daniel Wertz who has for years analysed the sanctions regime and its impact on the North Korean economy.
Wertz is the Program Manager at The National Committee on North Korea (NCNK). He manages research and publications at NCNK, and is also the lead researcher and editor of North Korea in the World.
The NKhumanitarian website has transcribed the interview for the benefit of our readers. Some small sections of the interview have been omitted from the transcription if the discussion is not directly relevant to our focus on humanitarian issues and the impact of sanctions on the people of the DPRK. These omitted sections are flagged in the text below.
While the site editors have tried to accurately relay the exact discussion in the interview, there may be some minor discrepancies.
NK News interview with Mr Daniel Wertz, Program Manager, National Committee on North Korea (NCNK).
Interviewer: Hello listeners and welcome to the NK News podcast recorded here in Seoul on Tuesday June 11 2019. And today I am joined by Daniel Wertz of the National Committee on North Korea in Washington DC where he is the Program Manager in charge of research and analysis and also helps NGOs to navigate through the field of national and multinational sanctions especially those who are doing aid work in North Korea. And he’s the General Editor of http://www.NorthKoreaintheworld.org. Did I get all that right?
Mr Wertz: That’s correct.
Interviewer: Fantastic. Thanks very much for joining us today Daniel Wertz.
Mr Wertz: Thanks for having me
Interviewer: So let’s talk about sanctions. So obviously sanctions – we have a lot of them on now. We have some UN Security Council resolutions sanctions on North Korea. We have some sanctions levied from Washington DC directly on North Korea. We have some from South Korea. What would be the case if things get worse – if for some reason the dialogue breaks down and more sanctions are levied or the existing sanctions are more strictly enforced?
Mr Wertz: I’ll just start with the usual caveat that the views expressed are my own and don’t represent those of the National Committee on North Korea.
Interviewer: Absolutely. Thank you for mentioning that. I forgot to mention that ladies and gentleman. But that’s a good point to start with.
Mr Wertz: That’s no problem. So if negotiations break down we get back to escalation of pressure and threats from North Korea and the U.S. I think, probably, some of the first steps you might see are just more sanctions designations issued by the U.S. Treasury Department and more frequent sanctions designations. Before the Singapore Summit, the U.S. had reportedly readied a tranche of several hundred new sanctions designations that was ready to go. The U.S. subsequently held off on issuing those designations even though. In the year since Singapore, there have been occasional new sanctions designations from the U.S. We’d probably see – if things get worse – a lot more [sanctions designations].
Interviewer: So sanctions designation is basically when the Treasury Department says this cannot be sent or sold or imported or transferred into or out of North Korea?
Mr Wertz: A sanctions designation is an individual or a business and it basically says that any assets belonging to this entity in the United States will be frozen. In the case of individuals, they will be banned from travel to the United States. And other businesses, entities – if they are doing any kind of business with the specially designated national that has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department – they themselves will also be at risk of being sanctioned by the U.S.
Interviewer: And can individual items, specific products also be designated as sanctioned items? Or is it generally done company by company, individual by individual?
Mr Wertz: It’s individual by individual – the way that the Treasury’s specially designated national list works. It’s the UN, through its Security Council resolutions, [that] identifies specific items that are prohibited for export to or import into North Korea. At the international level, and the U.S. also, through its North Korea sanctions regulations, [there are]… a quite extensive list of the type of business activities related to North Korea that can cause a business to be sanctioned as a specially designated national by the Treasury Department. And that list of activities, that can potentially trigger sanctions, is quite extensive.
Interviewer: Now you’ve mentioned since around the time of the, just before, the Singapore summit there was a tranche of sanctions prepared but not actually imposed. So, the U.S. has these, kind of, in its back pocket. Is that right?
Mr Wertz: That seems to be the case – yeah. And they are certainly, if you look at the recent Pyongyang International Trade Fair, a lot of Chinese businesses that are doing business violating sanctions with North Korea pretty openly. And if the Treasury Department wanted to find some subjects for potential sanctions designations, I don’t think they’d have a lot of difficulty in doing so.
Interviewer: So, basically, the Treasury Department can decide by itself to impose these new sanctions? Or does it need an act of Congress? Or does it need an executive order from the President? How does that work?
Mr Wertz: It’s the Treasury Department that imposes the sanctions on individuals that violate U.S. sanctions law. But, of course, this is something that goes to a multi-departmental process and the U.S. Government, for any major sanctions designations, the White House would have to sign off. State Department, other executive branch agencies, would all have to weigh in in some fashion. And we actually saw, a few months ago, a kind of breakdown in this process – a bit of miscommunication perhaps where the…
Interviewer: Within the U.S. Government?
Mr Wertz: Within the U.S. Government where the Treasury Department issued a couple of new sanctions on shipping companies doing business with North Korea. And the next day President Trump went on Twitter and announced that new North Korean sanctions would be rescinded or would not be issued.
Interviewer: So if things get worse, if talks break down, there’s more sanctions in the back pocket that can be imposed. Is there a likelihood of increased sanctions or stronger enforcement from the UN side of things?
Mr Wertz: That’s of course dependent upon whether or not there’s a consensus at the UN Security Council on the need for stronger sanctions. That means China and Russia among other parties would have to agree that new sanctions are warranted. North Korea’s put a lot of political capital in the past year in trying to repair its relations with Beijing and Moscow. But, of course, major new provocation and new nuclear tests, long range missile tests, could cause those relationships to deteriorate once again. The UN sanctions regime – it’s already pretty extensive – but there is certainly more that could be added to it. There could be restrictions on North Korea’s imports of crude oil, for example, which it’s basically capped at the same level that it’s been at for the past several years. There could be restrictions on tourism to North Korea which is one money-earning activity for North Korea that’s currently not explicitly sanctioned. I think in general, though, what’s really important for the sanctions regime isn’t just adding to what it says on paper, but strengthening how it is enforced.
Interviewer: Okay. Within the UN Security Council, is it the Security Council itself that imposes or lifts sanctions? Or is it a committee of the Security Council?
Mr Wertz: So there’s a Security Council sanctions committee, the so-called 1718 Sanctions Committee, which has authority to waive sanctions on a case by case basis. So for humanitarian organisations seeking to work in North Korea that have to bring some prohibited items into the country they would get a waiver from this committee. For inter-Korean sports exchanges related to the Olympics they required a few waivers from the Sanctions Committee. But to change the UN Sanctions regime as a whole – that requires an act of the Security Council.
Interviewer: Now that latter act that you mentioned – to change or to add new sanctions – does that require a unanimous vote or a majority? How does that work?
Mr Wertz: So that requires unanimity among the five Permanent Members of the Security Council. The non-permanent members – it doesn’t require unanimity among them but as far as I can recall the past UN Security Council Resolutions have passed unanimously. If China and Russia’s been onboard, other countries on the Security Council have inevitably signed off as well.
Interviewer: And within the 1718 Committee for sanctions waivers – [does] that also require a unanimous vote?
Mr Wertz: It does. So, the 1718 Committee operates by consensus and its membership basically nears that of the UN Security Council.
Interviewer: Alright, okay. Now what if the situation gets better? So if the U.S. and North Korea reach some kind of a deal, how would sanctions actually be lifted? And how would that affect the ability of North Korea to engage in trade and business with the outside world?
Mr Wertz: So, it would be a very complicated process if sanctions started to be lifted. Even if North Korea made very dramatic progress on denuclearisation then it would be still a difficult thing to just lift the sanctions regime overnight. But you could start to pare back the UN Resolutions first, either by issuing waivers for certain activities, or perhaps inter-Korean cooperation. You could, perhaps, suspend or change some of the restrictions relating to North Korean commercial imports or exports for example increasing North Korea’s, the amount of refined petroleum that they can import. And those kind of sanctions can be snapped back relatively easily if there is the right mechanisms in place. For U.S. sanctions, it’s a big more complicated. U.S. sanctions law basically states that U.S. sanctions, including secondary sanction in some cases, can only be suspended if North Korea has made progress, not only on its nuclear programme, but also on other issues that Congress cares about – such as human rights, illicit activities etc.
Interviewer: So they’re specifically tied in law to lifting of sanctions by the U.S.?
Mr Wertz: They are. And there’s a little bit of leeway in the relevant law. The White House simply has to declare to Congress that North Korea has made “progress” on those issues. The law doesn’t specify ‘what’ progress might necessarily entail. So, if the Executive Branch were to really try to lift sanctions, they might have a little bit of wiggle room. But if they were to declare that North Korea had made progress, for example, on human rights issues when that’s not really the case, that could certainly lead to some push back at the very least from Congress.
Interviewer: You said that, yeah, that it’s a long and complicated process and it would be hard to change things overnight and to enable North Korea overnight to interact with the outside world. In terms of trade and economic development how long a time frame could that take? Would that be five, ten years?
Mr Wertz: That’s a good question. I think that a lot of the restrictions to North Korea’s normal relations with the international economy, a lot of them, aren’t even directly related to sanctions…there are lot of important non-sanctions barriers in place. North Korea, for example, is not a member of any international financial institutions. It’s not a member of the IMF, World Bank or WTO. And that prevents North Korea from, potentially, being able to integrate into the global economy. And in the case of the U.S., North Korea is one of two countries along with Cuba that are subject to, what are called, ‘Column 2’ tariffs meaning that even if the U.S. dropped all of its U.S. sanctions, North Korean imports to the U.S. would become prohibitively expensive to the point where they are just not competitive. So, if there was a, you know, if North Korea completely denuclearises, if the UN and U.S. sanctions were completely lifted, there would still be a lot of complex barriers in place to North Korea’s integration with the global economy
Interviewer: As you point out, it’s not part of the World Bank or the IMF. What about that relatively recent Asian Development Bank that China has set up – I can’t remember the exact name of it. But is North Korea interacting with that in any way that we know of?
Mr Wertz: I think that they’ve had some low level interaction with that mechanism but they’re not a member. Because China is the major country behind that institution…
Interviewer: But it’s also the major lifeline behind the North Korean economy…
Mr Wertz: …yeah. It might be easier for North Korea to join China’s equivalent of the ADB than….
Interviewer: Do you remember the name of that thing?
Mr Wertz: Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank.
Interviewer: There you go – AIIB!
Mr Wertz: That’s it. It would be potentially possible for North Korea to join the AIIB down the line, even if it’s blocked from joining other international financial institutions. I suspect that the North Koreans, though, would want to diversify their foreign economic relationships and get beyond China if they were to open their economy and start integrating with the rest of the world; if they were to take dramatic actions to get rid of sanctions. So, they probably would want to get beyond just interacting with the AIIB if they possibly could.
Interviewer: Aren’t there any judicial decisions that would hamper North Korea’s involvement with trade with America?
Mr Wertz: Yes, there are. So, there’ve been a number of court cases brought against North Korea by individual U.S. citizens ranging from the crew, former crew, of the USS Pueblo…
Interviewer: That was in 1968…
Mr Wertz: …the lawsuit was a little more recent though to the family of Otto Warmbier. So, there is over $1billion in U.S. court judgements against North Korea. And if U.S.-North Korea economic ties would be, normalised that’s one issue that would have to be dealt with in some fashion or another. And it wouldn’t be necessarily easy to just put aside these court judgements since they’re decided by the judicial branch which is of course independent in the U.S. system of government. And [the claims] are brought by individuals who, I think, would certainly work hard to try to test their claims against North Korea if they had the opportunity to do so.
Interviewer: Now but those claims, or those judgements are against the North Korean state, aren’t they?
Mr Wertz: Yes.
Interviewer: So, if at some stage in the future, a North Korean private company were try to do trade with America, would that judgement hamper its operations also?
Mr Wertz: That’s a good question. I think it depends what exactly a North Korean private company means. In the North Korean context there is certainly a lot of state-owned enterprises that function on kind of pseudo-market basis and act, in the North Korean context, kind of as private companies, [although] in a legal sense are not. If private North Korean companies, in a post-reform North Korea, were to enter the U.S. market they might have some insulation against these kind of court judgements. But if it’s a North Korean government [company] that, all of a sudden, that has assets in the U.S., then that could be a complicating factor.
Interviewer: Now, what about if things all just stay the same and we keep muddling through for the next 5 to 10 years, as we have the last decade or so, and sanctions remain as they are at current levels?
Mr Wertz: I think we’d see certainly more of the same. We’d see Chinese businesses continue to smuggle goods into North Korea and out of North Korea. We’d see any international businesses that try to comply with sanctions and do everything above board, basically, blocked from doing business in North Korea. There would be a little bit of wiggle room under the current UN and international sanctions regime and how it’s enforced for things like greater humanitarian assistance into North Korea.
Interviewer: Right. Because we always hear that, whatever the sanctions are, that humanitarian work is not supposed to be a target of sanctions, right?
Mr Wertz: Yeah, that’s the idea.
Interviewer: But it’s an unintended consequence.
Mr Wertz: But it hasn’t always been the case in practice. So, the provisions in the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2397 which was adopted in December of 2017 that banned the export of metals, machinery, vehicles, electrical equipment to North Korea. And in practice, those categories of goods, were defined so widely as to include a lot of goods that humanitarian organisations typically bring into North Korea for their projects. So, for those humanitarian organisations to bring in goods necessary to build up capacities at hospitals, or to provide clean water, or things like agricultural equipment, those all require waivers from the UN 1718 Sanctions Committee. And although, starting earlier this year, the Sanctions Committee has finally started approving those waivers on a routine basis, it’s still an enormously complicated and time-consuming process to get through them. And even with those waivers in place a lot of banks simply don’t want anything to do with NGOs that are operating in North Korea.
Interviewer: Right. So it’s not just the movement of good, it’s the movement of payments of money in North Korea to get any of the job done [that] is impeded?
Mr Wertz: Yes. And it’s not even the flow of money into North Korea from NGOs. It’s simply operating in North Korea and sending money into China to pay for humanitarian goods, food or medicine etc. that might be eventually exported to North Korea; that’s become an increasingly challenging problem for NGOS, which for years have not been able to send money directly into North Korea to pay for local costs. And the UN agencies similarly – even though there are some carve outs in the UN sanctions allowing them, in theory, to send money to North Korea to pay for local costs – in practice they haven’t been able to do that.
Interviewer: Is that because of the fear of secondary sanctions?
Mr Wertz: Yes. It’s ‘de-risking’ by the banks. They simply don’t want anything to do with transactions related to North Korea even if those transactions are entirely licit and above board because it’s a huge amount of risk that they are taking on for very low profit margins. The NGOs and UN agencies operating in North Korea are not giving a lot of business to these banks.
Interviewer: And that’s part of the long-term knock on effect of the Banco Delta Asia scandal, I suppose, isn’t it?
Mr Wertz: And that’s been a strategy that the U.S. has increasingly pursued in recent years: going after international banks that do business with North Korean front companies, middle-men, that don’t do sufficient due diligence to block North Korean access to the international financial system. And that’s something that, if talks between the U.S. and North Korea break down, I think you might see more aggressive actions on that front – particularly U.S. enforcement actions against major Chinese banks that have not sufficiently enforced sanctions on North Korea.
Interviewer: As it stands at the moment, with the sanctions as they are, are we seeing any contraction or shrinkage of the North Korean economy?
Mr Wertz: If you look at some of the numbers of that are available, it’s something of a mystery. The exchange rate in North Korea has stayed pretty flat.
Interviewer: This is the North Korean Won to the U.S. Dollar?
Mr Wertz: North Korean Won to the U.S. Dollar or to the Chinese RMB or other foreign currencies. The black market exchange rate has been surprisingly stable. Food prices have been stable. Fuel prices jumped up a bit in 2017 but have then, kind of, plateaued. Chinese trade statistics tell a different story. We see a lot of North Korean imports of goods that are sanctioned in the Chinese trade statistics. But the reported exports have dropped to nearly zero. Of course, we know that it’s not the case in practice. The North Koreans are still getting around those trade sanctions in some ways. The question is: are they bleeding out U.S. Dollars? Are they not able to make as much hard currency as they once were to pay for their imports to facilitate what’s become a Dollarised domestic economy? And I suspect that North Korea may have adopted, what you might consider, austerity polices.
Interviewer: The belt tightening policy for the citizens…
Mr Wertz: Yes. Having a very tight monetary policy in order to keep the market exchange rate stable and taking other actions where people’s wages, if they work in industries where they get wages instead of rations, are probably reduced. There’s less money around for de facto private investment and certainly we’ve seen that rations – that go through the public distribution system to North Korean state-owned enterprises and government officials – those have been cut according to the World Food Programme and FAO.
Interviewer: Now, it’s only a few years ago, I seem to remember in the last few years that Kim Jong Un made a speech in which he said there would be no more belt tightening; that people don’t need to live under austerity any more.
Mr Wertz: Yeah. In April last year in a major policy speech, Kim Jong Un basically said that the Byungjin Policy of simultaneously developing nuclear weapons and the economy is over that it’s essentially an economy first policy from here on out.
Interviewer: Right and here we are barely a year later.
Mr Wertz: Yeah. And the economy, I can’t imagine, has improved in that time. It hasn’t collapsed certainly. But we’re far from North Korea transforming into the kind of Socialist paradise that Kim Jong Un, I think, wants it to be.
Interviewer: Though I imagine that if sanctions stay the same, that that kind of economic growth would be extremely difficult if not impossible?
Mr Wertz: Yeah. It would be very very challenging even with half-hearted sanctions enforcement along the Chinese-North Korean border for North Korea to resume the kind of decent levels of growth that we saw in the period from circa 2009 through 2016 when China and North Korea trade really boomed. If sanctions are fully enforced…[the economy] won’t implode but the chances for growth in that kind of environment are pretty low.
Interviewer: And if the sanctions regime were to become stricter and enforcement were to become more regular are you saying that this could lead to an implosion of the North Korean economy?
Mr Wertz: I think it could lead to a lot of pain for the North Korean economy which is not necessarily to say that strongly enforced sanctions will lead North Korea to entirely accede to U.S. and international demands at the negotiating table. I think that this is a regime that has clearly shown that it is willing to withstand a lot of pain – or rather to have its people withstand a lot of pain – in order for its core political objectives to remain in place. I think, that being said, if you compare the North Korean economy of the 1990s to today, the average North Korean is probably more resilient in some ways, less dependent on the state for largesse. There are better coping mechanisms in place so I think the prospect for a repeat of a total collapse of the North Korean economy, as we saw in the 1990s, is not that great.
[Brief discussion of the Hanoi Summit and expectations regarding sanctions lifting and denuclearisation omitted]
Interviewer: You’ve had a chance, Daniel, to look at some of the photographs that NK Pro took at the May Spring trade fair that happened in Pyongyang a couple of weeks ago. What did you get from those photographs that’s relevant to the sanctions work that you’ve been doing?
Mr Wertz: I think that those photographs clearly indicated that sanctions are not being fully enforced, particularly on the Chinese side, but also by businesses operating out of other countries. And it showed that, surprisingly enough foreign businesses that are operating in North Korea don’t seem to have too much concern about the risk of being caught. By going to the foreign trade fair, they’re essentially operating in the open and this is a trade fair that, certainly the UN Panel of Experts and almost certainly the U.S. Treasury Department, look at very closely and scrutinise the list of businesses that are appearing there.
[Brief discussion on why the North Korea Regime might not want to open its economy omitted]
Interviewer: You mentioned, or I mentioned at the start when I introduced you, that you help NGOs and aid agencies navigate through the path of the various sanctions around North Korea. Can you tell us a little about that? How do you do it?
Mr Wertz: It’s been extremely challenging for aid agencies operating in North Korea, particularly U.S. agencies. For a U.S. NGO there is a lot of traps to run though. You have to start off getting approval from the U.S. Treasury Department. And finally those NGOs have to get approval from the UN 1718 Sanctions Committee for permission to export any prohibited items including metals, electrical equipment etc. to North Korea. And the NGOs also have to deal with issues such as ‘de-risking’ from banks and other private sector companies. Even if they’ve complied with all of those sanctions requirements, they still have to deal with Chinese customs – which, frankly, might not always care if a UN Sanctions Waiver has been granted. So it’s enormously challenging on multiple levels
Interviewer: It sounds like a minefield!
Mr Wertz: And for a period last year, a lot of these applications from U.S. NGOs were being denied. There were several NGOs that had their staff denied permits to travel to North Korea, licences from Commerce or Treasury weren’t being granted. The U.S. was blocking waiver applications at UN 1718 Sanctions Committee. Thankfully, the U.S. reversed course on those policies around January of 2019 and began once again facilitating U.S. and international humanitarian assistance to North Korea. But it remains, nonetheless, extremely challenging to do so.
Interviewer: Now the National Committee on North Korea is that affiliated with Mercy Corps?
Mr Wertz: Yes. We were founded by Mercy Corp back in 2004 to be a humanitarian bridge between the U.S. and North Korea and to bring together the community of Americans who are involved with principle engagement with North Korea which includes humanitarian workers, people who do Track 2 dialogues etc. And we remain part of Mercy Corps even though we have independent streams of funding and on a day to day basis our programming is distinct from the rest of Mercy Corps.
Interviewer: Just quickly for our international listeners: what is Mercy Corps?
Mr Wertz: Mercy Corps is an aid and development organisation which operates in over 40 countries and is headquartered in Portland, Oregon.
Interviewer: And do they currently have anybody stationed in North Korea?
Mr Wertz: We do not. Mercy Corps was one of the first NGOs in the U.S. to really ring the alarm on the North Korean famine in the 1990s. It was very closely involved with providing food assistance and relief in North Korea during that period and continued providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea in subsequent years. A few years ago it made the decision to suspend North Korean programming but certainly if circumstances are right in the future that could potentially resume.
[Closing discussion omitted]
Andrea Valentino, writing in NK News (September 4, 2019), describes how the Quaker-run American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), an NGO that specialises in agriculture, has successfully worked in North Korea for years. It is worth reading his full article here.
The DPRK has historically hosted several Christian NGOs, from Mennonites to Lutherans. But the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) came first, and its four-decade stay in the country is a record for any American service organisation.
The DPRK welcomed the first AFSC delegation in 1980 and the relationship has survived the turbulent years since. When most of the other foreign aid organisations left after the famine in the 1990s, AFSC stayed on. Something about AFSC values and its approach to humanitarian engagement in the DPRK distinguishes it from other bigger and better known NGOs who have tried and failed to establish long-term aid operations in the country.
Since 1996, AFSC has worked directly with cooperative farms in North Korea. It is currently engaged in projects with four farms, providing equipment and training workers, involving 12,000 families directly, and 72,000 indirectly.
One of these projects involves using rice trays to plant seeds, while another teaches farmers to weave straw into insulation for greenhouses. The equipment the AFSC imports – shovels and plastic sheeting – is simple yet even these small innovations can change the lives of thousands.
The figures for agricultural output seem impressive. Since using rice trays, yield on the AFSC-linked farms has jumped by over 10 percent.
AFSC also arranges trips to teach North Korean agriculturalists in China. Linda Lewis, DPRK programme director at the AFSC, remembers a particularly striking moment where she showed a group of farmers their first winter greenhouses.
“They said that they had to heat their greenhouses on the inside, but couldn’t afford fuel. We told them that if they built them properly, they could raise crops all year long without any heating. They didn’t believe us, so we took them to China and showed them people raising strawberries and lettuce in winter without heat.”
At the practical level, these innovative approaches have helped build strong relationships with North Korean farmers and officials. Valentino says “these successes speak to the usefulness of Quaker values to obtain practical change.
Just as importantly these Quaker values have also influenced how the regime has viewed AFSC over the last 40 years. The Quaker value that most underpins AFSC’s work is the concept of ‘accompaniment’.
For ecumenical groups engaged in peace-building activities, accompaniment is a theoretical model for humanitarian work in conflict zones (see EAPPI). In that context:
- It is also a biblical model for acting justly in the way of Christ.
- The legal framework for accompaniment is International Humanitarian Law.
- Accompaniment must combine a strategic local presence with international pressure in order to be effective.
But accompaniment is a model for humanitarian work that applies in other contexts too. The word derives from the Latin words ‘com’ and ‘panis,’ meaning ‘with bread.’ Literally, it implies sharing bread with someone as an act of companionship.
As a biblical model, three key elements of accompaniment are prominent in narratives found in the Gospel of Luke: preaching a word of hope, sharing the basics of life and departing at the right moment to carry on the work elsewhere.
It is as a biblical model for acting justly and providing companionship that is at the heart of Quaker’s humanitarian work in the DPRK. No preaching is involved, of couse, as it is an activity that is banned in the country. Rather Quakers “help and assist and follow in the footsteps of the community, and support them in their struggles” as a public education and advocacy coordinator at the AFSC characterises it.
It is in that way that the AFSC has spent decades talking to farm managers and gradually building projects that work for them. It is a successful approach to humanitarian engagement that separates AFSC from other humanitarian NGOs who have worked in the DPRK.
“We don’t stress disagreement,” the same AFSC coordinator explained. “We find a small space to stand on, and work to expand it out.” Valentino in his NK News article notes that this approach is markedly different to that of some secular NGOs, including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) which we have written about here.
MSF pulled out of the DPRK in controversial circumstnces in 1998 at the height of the famine in the country. 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.”
AFSC’s non-confrontational style seems to give the organisation more sway with North Korean officials. It is an interesting paradox that the Christian Quakers “seem to be treated more like how the North Koreans treat European leftwing organisations,” Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, has said.
In particular, he cites the open cultural exchanges more typically enjoyed by Stalinist groups like the Korean Friendship Organisation than a Quaker group from Bear Creek, Iowa.
More broadly, Snyder wonders if their avowed pacifism makes the Quakers less likely to “engage in behaviours that could draw negative responses from the North Koreans.” It is an interesting thought that might have lessons for countries seeking to build relationships with the DPRK.