Aid Groups Hoping For North Korean Transition

December 19, 2011       Don McNamara      

Any time news comes out of North Korea, the rest of the world holds its breath, because it could be anything from the announcement of a parade to a threat to start a nuclear war.

So it was with the news, released only Monday, of the death two days earlier of Kim Jong-il, the autocratic ruler of North Korea, and the announcement that his son, Kim Jong-un, has ascended to the country’s leadership.

While the news grabbed and held the attention of political and military leaders the world over, it also is of interest to international nonprofits that work in North Korea. The repressive, secretive country has always displayed hostility to outsiders, although it has tolerated aid organizations working within its borders. Sector leaders are waiting to see what approach the new boss will take.

“I don’t think anyone knows what will happen, and anyone who speculates on what could happen does so knowing that the outcome could be very different,” said Dean Owen, spokesman for World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization in Federal Way, Wash., that works with children, families and communities.

Owen said that the organization is committed to continuing its work in the country regardless of the change in regime. Owen said World Vision built the first organic fertilizer plant in North Korea, as well as a large greenhouse outside Pyongyang with hydroponic potato seeds. It has delivered food, such as soy milk and tofu, to schools. The organization’s representatives have also visited hospitals.

“Organizations that are working there are doing good work under difficult circumstances,” Owen said. “Outside organizations are not allowed to have staff in country but can send staff in.” Owen added that outside groups other than the United Nations can’t even have a permanent office in the country. Owen said he visited for five days in 2009.

“World Vision works in some of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world, and North Korea is in the Top 10,” he said. Given that scenario, there is not much to do other than wait and see.

Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), based in Torrance, Calif., works to redefine the North Korea crisis while providing emergency relief to North Korean refugees. Upon the death of Kim Jong-il, it issued a press release that it will continue to monitor North Korea but does not expect any change in the near future. It quoted several refugees who said they expect no improvement in the country.

Amnesty International issued a press release expressing optimism that the change in North Korea will bring a more humanitarian atmosphere, although it acknowledged that reality could quickly crush expectations.

“Kim Jong-il, like his father before him (Kim Il-sung), left millions of North Koreans mired in poverty, without access to adequate food and healthcare, and with hundreds of thousands of people detained in brutal prison camps,” the release quoted Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director, as saying. “With this transition, we hope that the new government will step away from the horrific, failed policies of the past.”

The release went on to cite recent reports suggesting that North Korea’s dismal human rights record shows signs of continuing, because the government has purged possibly hundreds of officials deemed to be a threat to Kim Jong-un’s succession, by having them executed or sent to political prison camps.

All of this is happening at a time when aid groups are concerned, once again, about food shortages in North Korea. A coalition consisting of Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Service, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision released a statement criticizing the U.S government for failing to send substantial food aid to North Korea. The coalition maintained that help is especially needed now because of fierce summer storms that destroyed large areas of crops.