The Magazine

Too Charitable

North Korea’s favorite philanthropists.

Nov 12, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 09 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

But Mercy Corps doesn’t stop at sending aid. It also periodically invites officials from the North Korean foreign ministry to the United States for junkets, shepherding them to Oregon State University, various national forests, and other sites. One such visit, of four North Korean officials, happened in March 2009, just as North Korea had outraged our allies in Seoul by announcing that it was going to test a long-range missile. A 2007 junket saw North Korean officials attending a Portland Trail Blazers game and touring Nike’s headquarters. According to Austin, these junkets are a “cultural courtesy,” extended to North Koreans because “we send Americans there.” In an interview posted on Mercy Corps’s website, Austin said that these tours show North Korean officials that “there are many similarities between our country and theirs.”

Mercy Corps is also not above delving into the muck of politics and lobbying—oftentimes, in ways that actively undermine American and South Korean foreign policy. Earlier this year, for example, when President Obama (to his credit) suspended food aid in response to yet another North Korean long-range missile test, who was there to criticize the decision in the international media but the aforementioned David Austin? (In our phone interview, Austin also lamented U.S. sanctions on North Korea.) Last fall, while South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was making a state visit to Washington, an official for Mercy Corps urged the Obama administration to expedite aid shipments, which had been delayed on account of another North Korean provocation. Acting almost like a spokesman for the regime, the Mercy Corps official told Reuters, “All signs that we have gotten from the North Korean side are that they are willing to negotiate that if something is on the table.” So close is the Kim government to Mercy Corps that in 2005, the regime gave its “Friendship medal” to the cofounder of Mercy Corps—the only time an American citizen has been awarded that particular “honor.” (Han Song-ryol, who for years did Kim Jong Il’s nuclear bidding at the U.N. as North Korea’s ambassador to Turtle Bay, traveled to Oregon to bestow the award, which was bestowed posthumously.)

The question of whether to negotiate with a barbaric regime in order to deliver aid is one that NGOs have struggled with from Burma to Ethiopia to Sudan. There’s often a compelling case for striking a devil’s bargain with a grotesque government, so long as it actually helps the country’s citizens.

But the thing about making a deal with the devil is that the devil has to hold up his end of the agreement. That doesn’t happen in North Korea. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors without Borders), a venerable NGO that prides itself on delivering aid regardless of political considerations, pulled out of North Korea more than a decade ago. As Fiona Terry, a relief worker then employed with the organization, said at the time, “[MSF] endeavoured to .  .  . create the minimum conditions necessary to work decently in North Korea, but was unsuccessful.” She explained:

The teams realized that the government fabricated whatever they wanted aid workers to see: malnourished children in nurseries when more food aid was desired, and well-fed children when donors needed reassurance that food aid was doing good. Refugee testimonies corroborate this concern: Some report having carried food from military storage facilities to nurseries before a U.N. visit, and others speak of being mobilized to dig up areas to exacerbate flood damage in preparation for a U.N. inspection. When driving through some towns MSF personnel saw filthy, malnourished children dressed in rags, scavenging for grains along the railway track. But when asked about these children and the possibility of assisting them, the authorities denied that they even existed. MSF began to understand that the North Korean government categorizes its population according to perceived loyalty and usefulness to the regime, and those deemed “hostile” or useless were expendable. In fact, in 1996, Kim Jong-il publicly declared that only 30 percent of the population needed to survive to reconstruct a victorious society. With no possibility of directing humanitarian assistance to those most in need, MSF withdrew from North Korea.

Mercy Corps would do well to make the same deliberation and consider who—and what—its aid is really serving.


Ethan Epstein is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

*This article has been corrected to clarify certain aspects of Mercy Corps' work in North Korea.


Recent Blog Posts