North Koreans have been starving for nearly two decades. The worst period of famine, from 1994 to 1998, killed some three and a half million people, and chronic food shortages have persisted since then, with untold lives lost. Death tolls can understate human suffering, too: The millions who manage to survive chronic hunger still bear scars for life. One North Korean defector that I interviewed in Seoul several years ago, who had been a child in the mid-1990s, stood no taller than five feet—though judging by the size of his hands and his head, he should have been a much bigger man.
What to do about this catastrophe has vexed governments and NGOs since the onset of the famine. One thing is clear: Simply giving food to North Korea doesn’t work. The Kim regime controls the country’s food supply and dispenses it as it sees fit, feeding favored classes (the military, Pyongyang residents), while leaving others (particularly inhabitants of the country’s mountainous northeast, which it perceives as hostile) to starve. Perversely, food aid can thus serve to strengthen the regime, as it helps turn food into a weapon of social control. And all of this is further complicated by the fact that while the North Korean government is quick to tell the world that its population is hungry and to demand foreign aid, somehow the military, the network of gulags, and the nuclear weapons program always remain fully funded.
For these reasons, when a conservative party takes control of the government in Washington or Seoul, you’ll often see it limiting food aid programs. The vast majority of private aid agencies and NGOs also stay away from North Korea, determining that their hard work there will be ineffectual at best, and at worst, actively helpful to an evil regime.
With one prominent exception, that is: Mercy Corps, a well-regarded Portland, Oregon-based aid agency, has the closest relationship with the North Korean government this side of Beijing.
Founded in 1979 as the Save the Refugees Fund, Mercy Corps focuses, in its own words, on “disaster response, sustainable economic development, health services, and emergency and natural disaster relief.” Since its modest start as a charity devoted to helping refugees fleeing the Cambodian killing fields, it has grown into a major NGO with an annual budget surpassing $250 million. Mercy Corps operates in a host of troubled countries, including Afghanistan, Haiti, and Mali. In many respects, the organization’s integrity is unimpeachable: Charity Navigator gives it four stars out of four, recognizing Mercy Corps’s low overhead and high transparency.
Mercy Corps has been active in North Korea since 1996, when, according to David Austin, the group’s program director for the country, “a North Korean diplomat to the U.N. began reaching out to aid agencies requesting help with agricultural production, as there was a famine occurring in the country.” Since then, Mercy Corps has been deeply involved in North Korea, sending regular shipments of food, medicine, and plants. Earlier this year, it dispatched a large delivery of antibiotics and oral rehydration salts.
In a phone interview with The Weekly Standard, Austin described how Mercy Corps delivers its aid to North Korea. Actually, in point of fact, Austin described how Mercy Corps doesn’t deliver its aid to North Korea: Along with several other organizations, it simply ships the goods to a port in the country, where the Korean American Private Exchange Society, an arm of the North Korean foreign ministry, takes delivery and distributes them. Mercy Corps workers are not involved in the distribution. Instead, they are allowed periodic visits to the country to monitor the dispersal and use of the donated goods. But the itinerary is set long before the workers arrive in the country, and any changes have to be approved by officials. What’s more, the Mercy Corps workers are chaperoned by members of the North Korean foreign ministry and other officials the entire time they are in the country.
Austin concedes that North Korea is the only country in which Mercy Corps is not allowed to implement its own aid programs—only in North Korea does it simply trust the local regime to do what it says it will do. In every other country that it operates in, no matter how troubled—from Pakistan to Niger, from Burma to Colombia—Mercy Corps has permanent employees who oversee its aid programs. But not in North Korea—the regime won’t allow it. With the exception of infrequent, closely monitored visits, the Kim government has carte blanche to do what it sees fit with the aid. When asked about this stunning lack of oversight, Austin avers, “The [North Korean] government doesn’t take food away, to the best of our knowledge,” before quickly adding, “there’s no evidence of that.”
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.