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The North Korean Crisis: A Humanitarian Perspective

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)

Notice the logic here. We began with one problem: no light. We then tackled a second problem, got our foot down very securely on that step: built a windmill, tested the water. Now we're moving to the next problem linked to that in an inter-related fashion: cleaning the water so it's fit for human consumption and people aren't sick. What are they doing when they have dysentery? They are literally pooping out the caloric intake, the food that they're so desperately trying to grow and that we are providing and that they don't have the fuel to cook because there's no coal and because the agricultural waste in that area that they would use to burn, to warm the water, to cook the rice is either got to go back on the field or they've got to burn it now, so they've got a very cruel set of dilemmas. So you begin to see how these issues start to create a series of vicious circles that are beyond human endurance to really deal with in a situation on the ground.

Now this is just in a microcosm of one village. If you got to Pyongyang, a big city, you will find that the sewage plant has broken down. If you got to Nanpo, which was hit by a tidal wave even way up the estuary where Nanpo city is based, the tidal wave came in and flooded out the sewage system in Nanpo and they're drawing their water from ground wells. And the same sewage/groundwater/drinking water cycle now exists. There's no electricity for the sewage plants, there's no chlorine even of there was electricity. And so the people in the cities are now drinking polluted water. So in my view, the fastest way to increase caloric intake in North Korea - one of the fastest channels or pathways - is to provide electricity for sewage plants to operate to clean up the drinking water so that people can safely eat their food. It's a very well known path in the development literature, but the current modality of development aid in North Korea does not address these kind of linkages. Their system doesn't because it's vertically compartmentalized - the last thing it can do is deal with these kind of lateral coordination issues with different line agencies. And food aid is disastrous in such situations: it can keep people alive, barely, until it runs out and there's donor fatigue, which is what's now happened.

I have to say that I've looked at the food aid as it's been unloaded in Nanpo at the port and I'm ashamed to say - as an Australian citizen and as someone, and as an Australian whose just applied for American citizenship, so I'll have dual nationality shortly - that the food aid that I saw delivered from the American ship and that the World Food Program workers saw delivered was the worst that they had ever seen in any port city unloading food aid for WFP anywhere in the world. The United States has been literally sending the bottom of the barrel from the Midwest. This is corn that is polluted with rat poop, with dead birds, with twigs, you name it it's in the food aid. And they have to literally sort out each piece of corn from the rubbish that has been sent over because it's unfit to eat as delivered. I actually sent a message back to the State Department saying "I don't know if you're intending to culturally insult the whole North Korean population, but if you're not, you might do something with your quality assurance program quality control people on this food aid."

But my bigger-picture point, I think, is important: that we do need to start a macroeconomic as well as sector-by-sector technical assistance program and development strategy in North Korea to tackle these humanitarian problems. It's time to get down to the actual work of development in North Korea. And in my view, the North Koreans themselves are more than ready to do so. However, there are some important guidelines or lessons learned on how to go about doing it effectively, rather than getting cut off at the pass by the geopolitics. One important guideline in our experience in doing this work on the ground is that you actually need a certain kind of access and information to be successful. And to get that access and information you need to have very clear and well understood rational for the access and information that you are asking for. If that rationale is provided then it is possible to work towards a joint outcome and to success in almost all instances. And at a workshop held in Washington a week and a half ago (the papers are on our website] we did review the experience of long term field activities in North Korea. The joint activities: US-DPRK, international agency-DPRK, NGO (or non-governmental organization)-DPRK projects to see whether there was some common lessons learnt and you'll see that most of those papers and PowerPoint presentations are on the website.

What was interesting was, whether you're dealing with heavy fuel oil, flow meter monitoring, or the spent fuel canning, DOE team, or the joint recovery teams of the missing in action, DOD teams sent to work with the People's Army on the ground to recover the remains of Americans who were lost in the Korean War in the northern part of Korea, or in our own work on energy or on work on agriculture through the IFAD in Rome which has now worked on over a third of the North Korean agricultural cooperatives, and I could go on and on - there are some hundreds of different channels and probes like this in North Korea. You find that there are common stories, common lessons learned about how to practically solve problems and work with North Koreans in the real world circumstances. And it's not surprising to me that they're rather similar to the kinds of lessons learned that Lee was referring to earlier at the geopolitical level. The essence of it is do this: you need to have your commitments very clearly spelled out, which ones are negotiable, which ones aren't, where are the lines in the sand. We have threatened to leave North Korea on a number of occasions on our own project if we had not been given certain access, for instance, that we required to do our work. We were ready to leave, and at that point we negotiated a successful outcome. So you have to know where your hard line is. But you also have to be flexible and you have to be willing to accommodate reasonable North Korean demands. And above all, you have to fulfill your commitments. No one in that village believed that we Americans - the wolves who prey on North Korea, that's what they're taught from, you know, babyhood up, that we're the wolves who prey, we're the predators preying on North Korea - would come back. They believed that we were some kind of spying mission that had just gone into the village to see what was going on, and the chances we would ever some back and actually turn those lights on as we did six months later was zero.