The North Korean Crisis: A Humanitarian Perspective

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)

Cosponsor: Korea Society

Kenzo Oshima, Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, United Nations

Peter Hayes, Executive Director, Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development (via videoconference)

Leon Sigal, Director, Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project, Social Science Research Council

Moderator: Charles Armstrong, Associate Professor of History, and Chair of the Center for Korean Research, Columbia University

North Korea has just lit three nuclear fuses, all of them long ones. North Korea could soon light a short nuclear fuse as well.

It is seeking equipment to enrich uranium. U.S. intelligence estimates, and I quote, North Korea "is constructing a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational, which could be as soon as mid-decade." The uranium enrichment fuse, in other words, is more than three years long.

North Korea is preparing to restart production of plutonium by refueling its reactor at Yongbyon, which had been frozen under the 1994 Agreed Framework. Once refueled -- the North told the IAEA that would take one or two months -- the reactor could generate a bomb's worth of plutonium in a year. Allowing at least another six months to reprocess and weaponize the plutonium, it could have a nuclear device in a year and a half, another device a year or so later, or five to six in five years.

Pyongyang also says it will resume construction of two reactors frozen under the 1994 accord. It will take at least two years to complete the first, longer to complete the second. Were they up and running, the three reactors could generate 30 bombs' worth of plutonium a year. Again, that fuse is quite long.

North Korea has yet to light a short fuse by removing the spent fuel now stored in casks in Yongbyon and reprocessing it. It could soon do so. If it does, within a year it could have five or six bombs' worth of plutonium fabricated into nuclear devices.

These nuclear fuses are real. By contrast, whether or not North Korea already has one or two bombs is not known for sure. A divided U.S. intelligence community estimated in November 1993, nearly a year before the Agreed Framework was signed, that "it was more likely than not" it had "one, possibly two" nuclear devices, which was later lowered to one. Why the administration is now treating that possibility as a certainty is worth asking.

By its actions Pyongyang has convinced many in Washington it is determined to arm and should be punished for brazenly breaking its commitments. Both that assessment and the policy that flows from it are wrong.

North Korea is no Iraq. It says it is ready to give up its nuclear, missile, and other weapons programs. In return it wants the United States to stop treating it like an enemy. The North's willingness to cut its nuclear fuses before they detonate a grave crisis is worth probing in direct negotiations.

That is what Pyongyang is seeking by renouncing the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Renunciation not only leaves it no longer lawfully bound not to make nuclear arms, although it says it does not intend to do so "at this stage." It also leaves the 1994 Agreed Framework in effect as the only basis for negotiating inspections directly with the United States. This is intended to underscore North Korea's basic stance that if the United States remains its foe, it feels threatened and will seek nuclear arms and missiles to counter that threat, but if the United States is no longer its foe, it says it will not.

To understand why the North is acting this way, it is essential to recall how we got here. In the early 1990s Pyongyang decided to trade in its plutonium program in return for an end to enmity. At the same time it kept its nuclear option open as leverage on Washington to live up to its end of the bargain.

That became the basis of the October 1994 Agreed Framework, whereby North Korea agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its plutonium program in return for two new light-water reactors for generating electricity, an interim supply of heavy fuel oil, gradual relaxation of U.S. economic sanctions, and, above all, improved relations.

Washington got what it most wanted up front, but it did not live up to its end of the bargain. When Republicans won control of Congress in elections just weeks later, they denounced the deal as appeasement. The Clinton administration, unwilling to challenge Congress, back-pedaled on implementation. It did little easing of sanctions until 1999. Reactor construction did not get under way until 1999. It did not always deliver heavy fuel oil on schedule. Above all, it did live up to the pledge made in Article II to "move toward full normalization of political and economic relations" -- in other words, end enmity. When Washington was slow to fulfill the terms of the accord, Pyongyang threatened to break it in 1997. Its effort to acquire technology to enrich uranium began soon thereafter.

At the same time the North tried again to improve relations, this time using its missile program as inducement. On June 16, 1998, it publicly offered to negotiate an end to its development as well as exports of ballistic missiles in return for a declared end to enmity. It coupled that offer with a threat to resume missile tests, a threat it carried out on August 31 when it launched a three-stage rocket, the Taepodong I, over Japan in an unsuccessful attempt to put a satellite into orbit.

Pyongyang's tactics led many to conclude it was engaging in blackmail in an attempt to extort economic aid without giving up anything in return. It was not. It was playing tit for tat, cooperating whenever Washington cooperated and retaliating when Washington reneged, in an effort to end hostile relations.

Thanks to Kim Dae Jung and Bill Perry, Washington got back on the road to reconciliation in 1999. That policy paid off that September when Pyongyang agreed to suspend its test launching of missiles while negotiations proceeded. In return, Washington promised to end sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act, a pledge it carried out after the June 2000 North-South summit.

High-level talks in October 2000 yielded a pledge that "neither government would have hostile intent toward the other." In plain English, we are not enemies.

The declared end to enmity opened the way to a missile deal. In negotiations with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Pyongyang, North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il offered to end exports of all missile technology and to freeze testing, production, and deployment of all missiles with a range of 300 miles. Kim wanted President Clinton to come to Pyongyang to seal the deal, consummation of a ten-year campaign to end enmity with the United States. Without his commitment to come, negotiations stalled.

Instead of picking up the ball where Clinton had dropped it, Bush moved the goalposts. Although it was aware of North Korea's ongoing nuclear and missile activities, the administration did not resume negotiations. Instead, it tried to reinterpret the Agreed Framework unilaterally, demanding prompt inspections to get at the North's nuclear past. In response, the North expressed willingness to renegotiate the 1994 nuclear accord, trading expedited inspections for electricity, which it regards as compensation for the delay in reactor construction, but without a deal it warned it could "no longer keep its nuclear activities in a state of freeze and implement the Agreed Framework." The North accelerated efforts to acquire the means to enrich uranium. Then in 2002 President Bush repudiated the U.S. pledge of no "hostile intent" by naming North Korea to the so-called "axis of evil" and announcing a new doctrine of waging preventive war -- without allies, without U.N. sanction, in violation of international law. The North in turn began acquiring an operational capability to enrich uranium.

North Korea wants direct negotiations with the United States. It says it is willing to refreeze the plutonium program that it has unfrozen and to negotiate verifiable elimination of its uranium enrichment program. It has also offered to discuss its chemical and biological programs.

In return it says it wants a written pledge that the United States will not attack it, impede its economic development, or seek to overthrow its government -- not a reward for bad behavior but nothing more than the commitments Washington made in 1994 and did not keep. If Washington refuses, Pyongyang will proceed with nuclear arming. And until it is sure the political relationship is improved, it will keep its nuclear option open as a hedge by refusing to dismantle its plutonium facilities for now.

Negotiations with North Korea can avoid a replay of the 1994 nuclear crisis. Then, as now, Washington had four options: compel the collapse of North Korea, which was thought likely to provoke the North to nuclear arm sooner than collapse; impose sanctions, which were rightly deemed unlikely to be effective; attack its nuclear facilities, which was not certain to eliminate all the nuclear material and sites in the North but sure to risk war and raise a political storm in the South; or negotiate.

The administration's refusal to sit down and talk until North Korea dismantles its uranium enrichment program makes no sense. Do we really want the North to dismantle it without U.S. inspectors present? And how do we get inspectors into North Korea without negotiating with Pyongyang?

Pyongyang seems willing to cut its nuclear fuses while negotiations proceed. Negotiations can begin now before the North gets closer to making bombs or later after the North has some. By refusing to deal, President Bush may have to live with a nuclear-arming North Korea. Why would North Korea give up its nuclear and missile programs if the United States remains its foe?

This administration began, like its predecessors, by demonizing North Korea as a rogue state. A rogue is a criminal and the way to treat criminals is to punish them, not negotiate.

The administration's approach has put the United States in the way of reconciliation between North and South Korea, which is political dynamite in the South. The Bush administration is also alienating Japan and antagonizing China. An attempt to rein in the United States has been the catalyst for unprecedented cooperation among the other five powers in Northeast Asia. The Japan-D.P.R.K. summit meeting last September and the recent Japan-Russian summit should be seen in this light. So should the warming between South Korea and China. Hardline unilateralists are putting Washington on a collision course with its own allies, undermining political support in South Korea and Japan for the alliance and jeopardizing the U.S. troop presence in the region.

There is a better way: diplomatic give-and-take. That was the strategy pursued in tandem by South Korea and the United States in 1991 and again in 2000, the most fruitful years of dealing with North Korea.

The great divide in American foreign policy thinking is between those who believe that to get our way in the world we have to push other countries around and those who think that cooperation can sometimes reduce threats to our security.

In closing, it is worth reminding ourselves, what U.S. interests are at stake with North Korea.

First, the United States wants to assure that, whatever happens internally in North Korea, the artillery Pyongyang has emplaced within range of Seoul is never fired in anger.

Second, it wants to stop the North from nuclear arming.

Third, it wants to prevent the North from developing, testing, deploying and selling any more ballistic missiles.

Fourth, it wants a ban on biological and chemical weapons.

Fifth, it seeks reconciliation between the two Koreas.

The only way to achieve these aims is to test whether North Korea is willing to cooperate with the United States. Coercion will not work; it will only ensure that North Korea deploys more artillery near the demilitarized zone, seeks more aggressively to acquire nuclear arms, and tests, deploys and sells more missiles. It will further alienate allies South Korea and Japan and antagonize China.

The crime-and-punishment approach has never worked before with North Korea and there is no reason to believe it will work now. It will only impede efforts to ease the humanitarian crisis in North Korea. Whenever tensions have risen in the past, both the United States and the D.P.R.K. have made it more difficult for humanitarian agencies and NGOs to do their work there.

Thank you very much Lee, as always, for your astute and provocative (and I say that in a positive sense) analysis and prognosis of the situation. Next, Peter Hayes, Executive Director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development joins us by videoconference from Berkeley, California.

Peter Hays is perhaps the foremost specialist in issues of energy and security in Northeast Asia in general and North Korea in particular, and will, I'm sure, give us some very significant first-hand observations of the current situation. Thank you very much Lee, as always, for your astute and provocative (and I say that in a positive sense) analysis and prognosis of the situation. Next, Peter Hayes, Executive Director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development joins us by videoconference from Berkeley, California.

Thank you Charles. Thank you. It's always a pleasure to follow a tour-de-force like Lee, ranging over the geopolitical landscape. What I'm going to do is actually not addresses those kinds of issues, but really try and come down to the ground. I'm going to actually pick up on his very last comment about how the insecurities that afflict Korea, and in particular, these kinds of confrontations that we're living through at the moment impede humanitarian activities and development on the ground.

I'm going to begin by relating a small anecdote. As many of you know, our tiny Berkeley based non-profit organization built and still operates a wind turbine system in a small village on the west coast of North Korea called Unhari which powers the village households, the clinic, the nursery with very small young children. We have been working in this village since 1998, so we have had a presence in that village, we've been back quite a few times to the village, we're planning to go back again in the fall before the ground freezes, and so we have had a very intimate - increasingly intimate - relationship with this village and its inhabitants for, what, nearly five years. And this includes an energy and use survey in the village, and in order to do that we actually had to go into, I think, eighty households - actually inside the houses - we had to measure the houses, we had to measure all the in-use equipment, the iron, look at the stove, the cooking equipment, the refrigerator if there was one, a fan, the single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, if there was one. And we turned it on and actually measured the power consumption of each unit. And then there was an extensive social and demographic survey of the village using World Bank standard survey instruments and methodologies because we had premised this joint project with our North Korean counterparts as being done at the standards of international norms and expectations. There was no point in this project being a [potemkin] project. We wanted to do a real development project that would meet World Bank standards and then would put in place a capacity in North Korea to engage bilateral and multilateral donors once the ice began to break up at the geopolitical level.

I'm just going to tell you about being in that village just after the August of '98 missile firing. We were in North Korea at the time, and just after the Japanese Minister made his statement that Japan reserved the right to fire at the launch site of a North Korean missile. What happened in North Korea is very interesting. In that isolated rural village where we have been working, there was a military base about 100 meters from a cabbage patch in which we have constructed our wind power system. Those of you who are interested can look at a very detailed photo gallery on our website at You can actually see what I'm talking about: there's an anti-aircraft artillery unit about 100 meters from where we're working on a hill. At the other end of the village there's a surface missile radar placement. For those of you who are really interested in the military aspect of North Korea, just over the ridge from where we're working is what is called "Magic Mountain" which is the underground MIG airfield that protects Pyongyang. So we are in a very militarized area, and what we saw within nanoseconds of that statement, literally, was a situation in which things had been fairly relaxed in the village, where soldiers had been walking to and from the fields to help prepare for the harvest, this was at the period of preparing for the harvest, in late September/early October. We were building up towards that and the soldiers were in the fields, partly to help with the work and partly to make sure that no one ate the grain off the rice plants. And everything went from a state of being relatively relaxed, including how people related to us, to one of extreme tension where you could literally, you know, it was palpable - you could cut the air. And our minders came to us and said: "Look, for at least the next few days, and probably the next few weeks, your work has to slow down. You can no longer be literally in the face of the military like this, as Americans, who are putting such pressure on our country. We'll continue to work but we have to just slow it down and we can't be as easy with access and sort of wandering around the village and doing our work.

And it did slow us down substantially. You know, this tension literally impedes development projects in North Korea and at the macro-picture, of course, it - and this intended, I believe, in Washington - it puts a tremendous squeeze on a country which is already in a economically desperate situation. Now, I want to now just talk about some of the issues related to the humanitarian situation. And we all know the stereotypes of North Korea - the stereotypes of the starving people, the abuse of the land, which set the scene for the flash floods (this was not a natural event in the mid-nineties but a series of human-made catastrophes related to land use and abuse), the military goose stepping, etc… And all that is true. I mean, in my view, President Bush got one thing right, although I think it was very unfortunate that he used the rhetorical phrase, from a Western value perspective this is an evil political regime. It's evil in a very direct sense. But we don't need to, I think, wrestle with those stereotypes because the North Korean nightmare is not stereotypic. It's actually very different from the stereotypes that are the ones that administration seems to be doing battle with. It's a very, I think, closed circuit in Washington at the moment.

And so, when you come down to the ground in a village like North Korea you discover some interesting, bigger picture interrelationships that link energy and food and public health in very tangible ways. Let me be specific: in the village in which we were working we installed, as I said before, these wind turbines that turned the lights on, literally, in that village. In fact, I have to tell you the village chief moved from the part of the village that he'd always lived in to the part of the village that was lit. Between the beginning of the project and the second year that we came out he somehow got himself transferred into the lit part of the village. And we also came back, I guess it was in the year 2000, and built North Korea's first, very simple mechanical water lifting windmill. The kind of thing you see in Kansas, nineteen-thirties, maybe nineteen-forties. This is a low tech, not a high tech but a low tech, windmill. It was the first one to be built in North Korea. And why did they want a windmill? They wanted a windmill because in the middle of winter, when there's absolutely no electricity - right now - they couldn't operate the pump, the Soviet-era huge pump that would suck water up from the ground water through a bore and then be forced through a reticulated pipe system into the village. There was no electricity. So what they wanted was emergency drinking water, in the middle of winter when the ground is frozen. And we said "that's fine" and so we built this windmill with them. But we also had brought with us a little system for testing the water to see if it was polluted because we suspected that the groundwater in this village - given the sanitary system, the sewage system, where you take the human waste from each house and block and store it in cesspools and then put it on the crops to fertilize the crops - may have polluted the groundwater.

And so we made this windmill work. It gushed forth water and people were very excited to have this water gushing, and then we tested it and we found it was heavily polluted. The groundwater was heavily polluted with human sewage. And we then said to the village chief that we needed his permission to now go into a large number of households all over the village, not just in one area or in the area where there was electricity where they already knew us, but all over the village, to find out if this water was in fact delivered polluted to their existing water system throughout the village. And what we discovered after about a day's worth of walking around and taking samples, was that the whole village was drinking fecal contaminated water. And this is a microcosm of a very big picture. Because what happens when people drink water that is contaminated with human sewage? They get very sick. They get dysentery. The public health surveys in North Korea that have been done by the international agencies who work on public health indicate that somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of the population is suffering from dysentery on any given day. And if you're cold, young, sick, tired, hungry, malnourished, you get sicker and you die. There's a vicious circle, a series of interacting vicious circles here. And we could see it in our village.

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.

So that's an important lesson, in my view, for development strategy. You know, what has KEDO really done in nine years? It's spent a billion dollars, dug a whole in the ground, delivered some liquid coal which is almost useless to North Korea - so useless that a lot of it has been stored in holes in the ground and they don't know what to do with it because they have no way of actually using it - and it's got every North Korean virtually up in arms against the international community for not delivering on its commitments. It cost us a billion dollars to make every North Korean really angry at the United States and its partners. And NGO's (non-governmental organizations ) working with tiny amounts of money - in the case of our project it was about a quarter of a million dollars to date - within six months we delivered power that had that village lit and every person in [Anchang County?] knew that the Americans were in town and had come back. And then we came back again and will be coming back again. And in my view, it's this kind of slow, tedious, incremental, but in reality very fast, small-scale, cheap, tangible delivery of welfare that will actually turn things around, not the mega projects of governments, although it's inevitable that some of those will occur.

Now I'd like to conclude with a couple of remarks about the current situation. The fact is that North Korea, as a political culture, was forged in a volcanic eruption which was the Korean War. And the obsidian face of North Korea's Party totalitarian system, the pyramid of power, was created in that experience, when they were literally bombed underground. In the five decades of cold war that obsidian face was transformed into a kind of white-hot adamantine death star that sits on top of a coal, granite subterranean society. And to pile on the hyperbole, if we put more compression, more pressure, on this very dangerous place, it might collapse into a real black hole. And the consequences of North Korea actually coming apart at the seams - not all at once, but at the edges and in the rural areas and in the provincial towns where people literally have nowhere to go. You know, the workers in those provincial factories, they don't have land plots, they don't have stored grain in their roofs, and they're at the end of a distribution system that has collapsed and they're not near a border that they can cross. They have nowhere to go. That's where things start to come apart, not in Pyongyang. So it won't happen overnight, but if you push hard enough you will get a black hole in North Korea and the whole world will pay the price - not just the United States and Korea, but the whole world. This is a singularity, if you like. This is a tear in the fabric of the force field of international affairs that if you push too hard could really have a disastrous consequence.

The fear of war in North Korea, where I began, where Lee ended and I began, is very profound. I want to remind you that not only are they facing twenty thousand nuclear weapons in the American arsenal, and they might have enough material for two nuclear devices that aren't deliverable, but fifty thousand Koreans died at Hiroshima, and twenty-three thousand of them went back to North and South Korea where many of them still live and are around, and you can talk them and they will tell you that the United States should have dropped more nuclear weapons on Japan, not less. The lesson of nuclear war and the power of nuclear coercive diplomacy is something that the North Koreans had seared and imprinted on their brain like no other population on the planet. And they have then studied the United States assiduously - the master of nuclear coercive diplomacy for five decades. And they are now turning the lever back on the United States.

To me, this is not surprising. What is surprising, actually, is that they have been so measured and so prudent and so risk-averse in their attempt to use this leverage, even as they charge across the red line as we speak. And I think the irony here is that the United States apparently, as Lee was saying, prefers "no" to answer, rather than "yes" to having a security relationship. And, I think, the United States could make them an offer they could not refuse. The United States could make an offer to trade in their nuclear weapons in return for an economy, and charge the price of access to their rolodex of terrorist connections around the world and enlist then in what must be - on a day when the alert is at maximum about terrorist attacks - must be the first priority for the United States, not this side show in Iraq, not North Korea, but the risk of attack on the United States and its allies and friends all around the planet. We need the North Koreans in the war on terrorism, and in my view, they would join us if we actually just admitted that they are not a set of criminal donkeys - the crime and punishment and the carrot and stick paradigm in Washington - that they are a sovereign state that has their fallback options, their relationship with China. They aren't going anywhere fast and we have to deal with them. So I'll stop there. Thank you.


Thank you very much Peter. Now we move on to our final speaker of the evening who will give us a global view, we are anticipating, on humanitarian problems in and assistance to North Korea - Mr. Kenzo Oshima of the United Nations.


Thank you very much, and thank you for the invitation to be on the panel this evening.

Two crises with the potential to threaten the peace and security of the world dominate our attention at the moment: Iraq and North Korea. The development or suspicion of development of weapons of mass destruction is central to these two crises. Which one of these poses a more immediate and direct threat, as well as how to deal with the regimes of the two countries, whether through a change with regime change or change without regime change have been a subject of intense debate.

On the other hand, the humanitarian dimension of the crises has received relatively little attention in the media and public debate. Policymakers in capitols seem to be somewhat reluctant at the moment to discuss these issues openly. But the fact is, as has already been highlighted; humanitarian aspects are no less preoccupying in Iraq and Korea because of their far-reaching implications. I therefore welcome this panel, organized by the Asia Society and the Korea Society, to focus on this aspect.

If I dwell a little bit on comparing Iraq and North Korea situations: Iraq and North Korea have about the same sized populations - twenty-two, twenty-three million. And the U.N. became involved in the humanitarian operations at about the same time in both countries, and that is in the mid- 1990s. Of course, Iraq is placed under United Nations sanctions. And North Korea is not. Although bilaterally, it is under sanctions by the United States. Despite this, or rather because of this, and because Iraq is an oil-rich country and North Korea is not, humanitarian involvement is much stronger - happens to be much stronger - in Iraq than in North Korea, both in terms of the financial resources and the size of the humanitarian staff involved. In Iraq, over forty billion dollars has been spent for the humanitarian supplies and operations, and the United Nations authorized humanitarian exemptions of sanctions known as the Oil for Food Program over the past seven years. And one-thousand-plus international staff and three thousand, five hundred national staff are engaged to implement this program in Iraq.

In contrast, in North Korea, less that fifty international staff, and a small number of national staff provided by North Korean government, are involved to look after U.N. humanitarian programs, totaling about one billion dollars of the same period of seven years.

North Korea, of course, as many people know, is one country where information and transparency are such scarce commodities. But the outside world has come to know that North Korean people are suffering - suffer -from chronic food shortages, and that the country faces adire economic situation, and the situation is fast deteriorating. Famines exacted human tolls a few years ago, and the U.S. aid administrator documented this in detail in his recent book, entitled The Great North Korean Famine. Large numbers of hungry and desperate people have moved across borders in search of food and for life. Some of them have sought asylum in the south and other countries, going, in the process, through all sorts of dramas that have been widely publicized. One might ask, where does all this lead?

Indeed, many questions are asked. I am asked, also, a number of questions by my journalist colleagues, academic friends, and even governmental colleagues. First of course, is the question: how desperate, how acute, is the humanitarian situation in North Korea now, and what is the prospect for the future? What is the real reality there? The second question that is often asked is, how is the current political tension over nuclear issues impacting on the funding of humanitarian programs? Should donor countries keep helping North Korea while its government is engaged in nuclear program development and other unacceptable behavior? Third, it is often asked, should aid to North Korea be limited to humanitarian relief, or should it extend to more long-term, more developmental projects? Fourth, does humanitarian aid given to North Korea reach the intended targets? And how can you be sure that aid is not diverted, let's say, to the military or elsewhere? Is it really getting to the people, to whom it is intended? And what kind of access and monitoring systems are in place to ensure accountability? This question is often asked, and this is a concern of donor governments. First, what is the implication of the worsening humanitarian situation in North Korea, on peace and stability and security in the peninsula and beyond? So these, and other questions that may be raised, will need some answers. These questions raise fundamental issues of policy and principles that policy planners have to grapple with.

I do not, this evening, try and give answers to all these questions. I do not have good answers myself, I must confess. What I would like to do is to provide brief tactual background information, which, I am afraid, many of you may already know it, and also make a few observations.

First, a little bit of history. The U.N. humanitarian activity in North Korea started in the mid-1990's, 1995, in fact, when the country was struck by a series of natural disasters: floods and draught that brought severe damages, devastation, on its agricultural sector: food crops. This led the North Korean government to request an appeal for international assistance for the first time, swallowing pride according to some journalists who reported this at the time. Natural disasters thus triggered the emergency, but other factors, not only natural disaster but also other factors, also contributed to turn the emergency into crisis proportions in subsequent years. Experts have pointed out that a mix of natural disasters, policy failures, structural problems, mismanagement et cetera, et cetera, exacerbated the difficulties in North Korea. The country can no longer feed its people entirely, and the U.N. agencies have launched eight appeals every year. For the past seven years, the U.N. channeled, during this period, a total of close to U.S. one billion dollars in humanitarian assistance in food, as I said, in food, health, sanitation and other areas. Of course, outside the U.N. system, some substantial additional bilateral assistance is provided to this country.

The World Food Program reports that since 1996, North Korea needs, on average, over one million tons of cereals each year to feed its people. This represents over twenty-five percent of the country's overall food requirements. So unless this chronic food deficit is somehow met, millions of people in vulnerable situations, particularly children and the elderly, face starvation and malnutrition, and their effect, starving, wasting, and death.

I myself had the chance to make a brief visit to the country last August, and saw some of the situation there. And then, of course, Mr. Morris, executive director of the World Food Program, made his own visit and came back with a report and that was reported in the press.

What, then, is the response of the international community to the appeals that U.N. agencies have been making? For the past years, U.N. appeals for humanitarian assistance have received a reasonably good response from the international community, particularly key donors, traditional donors, which are the United States, Japan, Republic of Korea, and the European Union. The response to the U.N.-launched appeals has been at about eighty to eighty-five percent, which is considerably higher than the world average. The response that we get in respect to appeals made in, for example, Africa, or other situations, the average is about fifty percent. So North Korea has been receiving quite a positive response over the past years.

However, the situation has suddenly and rapidly changed since last fall. Jim Morris, WFP warned following his own visit to North Korea in last November, that sharply dwindling contributions from key donor countries in 2002 could mean a heavy death toll through this winter and beyond. Severe lack of funding from donors forced the World Food Program to cut back its food aid program in North Korea down to about three million people in November, from about 6.4 million people at the beginning of the year 2000. Unless quick funding is received, it would be able to help only 1.5 million people from January this year. In other words, the target contributions reduced to twenty-five percent, a quarter, of the year 2002 as a result of sharply declining funding.

As the situation stands now, absent immediate pledges, World Food Program food aid pipeline will run dry by the end of April, and UNICEF's supplies of basic medicines will run out by the end of March. In the worst cases, these agencies may be forced to drastically cut down their activities, assistance activities, or even be forced to withdraw their presence from North Korea. Should this happen, it would not be without some implications in terms of the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the country and possibly beyond. And what I would not like to see happen is that the gains made over the past several years, in building trust and mutual cooperation between the U.N. system and North Korea, be lost. And effort at reducing malnutrition and addressing the basic needs of the people, the chances of that may be seriously jeopardized, of course.

North Korea's nuclear and missiles programs, and also in the case of Japan, the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the past, have clearly poisoned the atmosphere, and key donors have stopped providing support. It is against this sort of background that the Secretary-General decided to send Mr. Maurice Strong as his personal envoy to North Korea in January to discuss the humanitarian situation in North Korea and other issues of interest. Mr. Strong came back, made his report to the Secretary General, with a certain number of recommendations. One of the recommendations he gave to the Secretary General was to start some special initiative to seek immediate donor support to make sure that at least, for the time being, agencies would be provided enough resources to carry on with the minimum level of activities in the D.P.R.K.

In the meantime, political and military attention keeps rising, and dangerously on the peninsula, and no short-term solution is in sight. Tough problems in the political security and diplomatic areas continue to bedevil the relationships between North Korea's neighbor countries, particularly South Korea, Japan, and the United States.

Now, the U.N has argued, and I would myself have argued, that as a matter of principle, humanitarian aid should be extended to people who are in dire need of help, in accordance with the principle of humanity, impartiality, and neutrality. This should apply to North Korea as anywhere else. The alleged vulnerable people need not be punished for their government's behavior and failures, especially when they have neither the freedom, nor the means to choose their government. The silent, voiceless masses that suffer as a result of their government's policies, and the socially vulnerable such as children and the sick, need to be assisted and not abandoned. I agree that the basic tenet of humanitarianism calls for us to extend to these people, who themselves are the primary victims, the support and compassion that they need. This sounds great, but in reality we all know that it is not so easy. Policymakers face tough domestic opinions, pressures, because humanitarian imperatives do not always triumph, especially when the country in question, like North Korea, is received as a serious military threat, or nuclear menace. So there is a sort of a dilemma in which emotions and cool reason battle over which should dictate decision and action. I think this is the reality. Still, I think it is important to emphasize the widely accepted norm in today's international community that we separate humanitarian assistance from politics.

However, this separation of aid, humanitarian aid, from politics must not be confused with another important rule of the game, and that is one of the questions I raise: the question whether in fact aid provided is delivered to the intended beneficiaries and not diverted elsewhere. In this respect, North Korea has been a tough place to operate. It has not been easy to put in place operational modalities that are sufficiently free, flexible, and transparent. But World Food Program and other U.N. agencies have raised these issues with the government, and it must be acknowledged that considerable progress has been made after patient negotiations over these years. In 1995, when U.N. humanitarian workers first arrived in Pyongyang, they were not allowed outside their hotel without escorts. Today, by 2002, WFP had opened five sub-offices, and the possibility of establishing cooperation with officials at the provincial level has improved. Today, eighty percent of the population is accessible by monitors, and a monitoring system of aid delivery is in place, and increasing access to larger areas subject to monitoring has been realized. I have distributed this map, which is accessible on the website, which shows the areas which are accessible by WFP monitors, and it also shows where several offices are located in the country. Certainly, there is room for improvement; for example, random access, or spontaneous monitoring, is not yet granted, despite our demands. But we can say, and I can say, I think, on the basis of my discussion, with reasonable confidence that today, most of the aid delivered through the U.N. agencies in North Korea reaches, more or less - I cannot vouch 100% - but more or less, those it is intended: children, orphans, pregnant women, the sick, and the elderly. I cannot speak for bilateral contributions. I have no idea how the supplies provided through bilateral channels are in fact monitored, and so forth.

One final point I'd like to make, and that is that while humanitarian aid is no substitute for political solutions, it is important to recognize, I think, that averting a humanitarian tragedy in North Korea would contribute to creating an environment that is conducive to the peace and stability of the region, and an environment that is more conducive to the peace and stability of the region, an environment more conducive to resolving the current political impasse. At least, that is our hope. Thank you very much.

Thank you. We're a bit over, so shall we go on to 8:05? Do we have permission to do that? Ok, great. The floor is open for questions to any of the panelists, including Mr. Hayes, via video, who will be watching you as well. First question, please. Please identify yourself, and keep your questions brief and to the point, if you would.

I've lived in Korea and in China. I'm interested to know: there's a lot of talk about what role China might play in this, and particularly if the international community decides to allow for a way for the refugees from North Korea to come through China to go on to another location, and what the plans for that might entail.

As you know, the Chinese are caught on a cross-pressure here. The pressure is fairly obvious. They want to look like good international citizens for the WTO and other reasons. There are three different patterns here, and it is important to distinguish them.

There are North Koreans who move across the border and come back to Korea, and there are substantial numbers. That is an important thing because presumably they have something in their heads that presumably they didn't have before they went across that border. So keeping that border open is very important if you're really thinking about how, over time, you might change North Korea. Now there's a second group of people, migrants, who go and settle in China, and the numbers -we don't have a good ballpark, but it's around 300,000. They, I think you might say, might qualify as refugees, because if they ever went home, they might get punished. There's a periodicity to the punishment in the North. They kind of relaxed at the time of the food crisis; they let people go back and forth, seemingly, and then later on they clamped down, and it's a - you know, they do punish people, who get to work camps, or worse. So I think the bottom line of this is that you want to find a way to keep that border open, and the good doctor isn't helping by his little game of getting a few people out of North Korea and into South Korea through the embassy route. Because that's resulted, at times, in a clamping down on both sides of the Chinese border, and you want to keep that border open. So it's a very tough - I think if you go look - Human Rights Watch did a very good report, and I'd invite people to look at it - that you talk about a special humanitarian status for people, rather than call them all refugees, because their status has to be determined on an individual basis. And there might be a possibility to do that with the Chinese. But what the Chinese clearly don't want is a large and visible problem. Because this border -it's not like the Mexican- US border exactly - there's a lot of back-and-forth - and as you know, there are people of Korean extraction on the Chinese side of the border, who have been there for quite a long time. This is one where the Chinese might give a little. But if it gets to be a highly visible migration, or if you have an intense humanitarian disaster in the North, I think then it gets tougher.

I come from the Korean Consulate, but this is not a question [from the consulate], this is a personal question. I think after hearing all the speaker, I think all of you have some frustration considering the current situation. And I myself also feel some strong frustration. And now I'd like to ask Mr. Leon Sigal that until the new government will come in to South Korea … in this regard I'd like to ask Mr. Sigel if you have any piece of advice to the coming government of South Korea. Thank you.

Well, I think a lot of Koreans, and not just those in the current government or the next government, have a view of how to deal with North Korea based on a lot of experience, that the ultimate name of the game is to try and introduce change through engagement. That really is …and by the way there are conservatives, people in the right of center in Korea who share that view of how you deal with North Korea. And clearly, that's at odds with - at least with some people in the Bush administration - since there is no policy it's hard to know - clearly there are three or four different policies warring with each other in Washington right now. I think the result of the visit, if it goes forward in the way this past visit of Chung to Washington … I do think a serious bilateral consultation between South Korea and the United States would help. I'm not a big fan of foray and methodology - I think you've got to get the policy right - but I do think it could be a kind of action-forcing device in Washington - to make the administration come up with a policy. Because I think when they are faced with the political realities on the ground in South Korea, they will come to understand the very serious limitations of either a sanctions strategy or any military strategy. That that is simply not on. And there was actually a sign of this, but because we don't have very good reporting these days in America, it was kind of missed. When the Commander in Chief of the Pacific asks for reinforcement, and the Commander in Korea doesn't, it speaks volumes. And I believe that these two military officers who are quite politically astute understood exactly what they were doing when they did that - this is potentially a very serious crisis, and it is not being treated with a degree of seriousness, if you listen to the rhetoric of officials in Washington. The loose talk about compelling the collapse of Korea, the loose talk about sanctions, the loose talk about military actions, literally make no sense without reinforcements. That is the first step you would take. This was the first step taken, by the way, in 1994. Commanders need reinforcements. That will set off the political firestone. I think that has to be thought through. I know of no better way to think it through than to have a serious bilateral consultation.

I am a member of the Korea Society. My question is to Mr. Oshima: the U.N. obviously is also pursuing a policy of separating humanitarian aid from politics. But recent reports have indicated that the United States has stopped all humanitarian aid to North Korea. Can you tell us the extent of the truth in this story? Is it true the U.S. has stopped humanitarian aid at this point, and have you also approached the Japanese government and South Korean government to obtain the necessary food aid for the work of the U.N. agencies operating in North Korea?

Thank you very much. Yes, the United States, Japan and Korea, the most important donors to North Korea's humanitarian assistance … as I noted since last fall, there has been a considerable scaling down of assistance, of no response. For example, in the case of Japan, it provided half a million tons of rice to North Korea. In 2002, it gave nothing. The United States also cut back on its contributions. South Korea has been providing rice and other humanitarian assistance, from time to time, but since last fall also, there has been an apparent stop to this.

Now the positions of the three governments are not the same. For example, the United States in public statements has made it clear that they do not mix politics with humanitarian aid. They separate it. However, the U.S. has been demanding that there need to be drastic improvements in technical-level issues, such as access and monitoring, that I referred to, and that there needs to be more transparency and more accountability in the delivery of aid. And since North Korea, despite some improvements that have been made, there is much more that needs to be done, and until such time that more is done in improvement, then the U.S. is not prepared to give more assistance. That is the official position.

But they have not said that they are not going to give aid. The country's recent statement, I think, by Colin Powell, and even President Bush, did make some reference to the readiness on the part of the U.S. government to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea. But under what circumstances and when and how much has not been specified.

As far as Japan is concerned, I am a Japanese national, and I follow it naturally with a great deal of interest, because as I said Japan has been a very important contributor to the humanitarian effort in recent years. The abduction of Japanese nationals apparently have inhibited the government to come forward with an additional pledge in the recent times because of very strong public opinion against providing any assistance, at least under the current situation. Whether it is the policy of the Japanese government to separate humanitarian assistance from politics is something that I am not so clear about on, myself. South Korea is in a totally different category. Although political restrictions, apparently, and the need to coordinate with certain partners, play an important role. But I think basically they look at the humanitarian systems from the point of their brothers and sisters to the North, from this approach.

Just a question for Mr. Hayes: can he provide a status of the current energy situation in North Korea at the moment, from production distribution. You had mentioned the specific village that you had been working in, but from a more macro perspective, what the situation looks like now.

First, the quite detailed quantitative analysis on our website, which you're welcome to download, is the same basic analysis which we did with South Korea and with the North Koreans of course, and we also bring this to the Department of Energy and the State Department. Essentially since 1990, the country has gone from its peak energy use to one in which coal production essentially collapsed. Oil became extremely scarce after the Russians cut off their concessionary supplies. And by the mid-1990's, North Korea had gotten to the point where about half of its primary energy supply was now from charcoal, wood fuel, and [ultra weight]. Almost all the rest came from coal, and a small amount came from hydroelectric sources in the power sector. The bulk of the energy used was in industry in 1990 collapsed, so the share of the household structures and public structures increased substantially. All along, the military use of energy has actually been quite a small fraction, albeit increasing as the overall demand collapsed and they held the military more or less constant. In the 1990 it was about five percent of total national energy use; by 1995 it was about eight percent. And then the situation just sort of slowly declined and got worse, through to the year 2000 to today. And in the electric power sector, which is politically very important because it links to the light water reactors and to KEDO and the whole nuclear issue, they have about ten gigawatts, ten thousand megawatts, or ten very large power plants, worth of electric generating capacity, of which about half is hydro, seasonal hydro, and they don't have very much storage, so their hydro really only works when it's raining and when there's run on the river water. And the other half is coal, then there's about a half gigawatt of small-scale hydro and stuff like that. Of that approximately 5-5 five gigawatts of coal hydro, at the moment we estimate that about 0.8 gigawatts of coal-fired thermal power plant is available and working, 0.8 of the four, and about 2 gigawatts of hydro is working, maybe 3, but only when there's water. And right now, there isn't much water -it's the middle of winter there. So the peak power crisis actually comes right in the middle of winter, when there's not much coal to get into that 0.8 gigawatts of power plant, and even worse, even when the power plants are working, there isn't much of a transmission distribution system left to get that power to where it needs to be used, incredibly wastefully, at point within use. In short, there's very little electric power in North Korea, and what there is is of very bad quality, which means that other than for resisted uses, very solidly made in uses, electronics and machinery that is at all sensitive to the voltage fluctuation and the frequency fluctuation- which is enormous - it's plus or minus two to four Hertz, around 50 Hertz, not the normal 60 Hertz that it's meant to be operating at, and the voltage fluctuation is extreme, not to 220 but upwards of 400, with the lowest measures as low as 120. That's a huge voltage fluctuation. It's the worst power system almost on the planet. There are probably some sub-Saharan African power systems that are worse, but it isn't much worse …

So you have a society in which the grid and the electric power system have collapsed, when ten years ago, thirteen years ago this was one of the highest per capita energy-using, and power-using countries in the world. And so in many respects, you know, the cities are black, dark at night, children can't study. This a Confucian culture, where education is extremely highly valued. There's no electricity for the hospitals, and it's really a disastrous situation. And so one of the most urgent things to do, in a development strategy, as against an aid strategy, is to get some electric power in where it's most needed. This means you don't solve the whole problem. That's not do-able in the short-term. But you start where it's most needed and work up.

I'd like to conclude there with a final comment, which is that the essence of development work, of technical assistance and development work, which we are moving into - short of war, I think it's inevitable that we would go in that direction, for all the reasons of donor fatigue that our earlier speaker was explaining. The essence of that is access. You have to work with people shoulder-to-shoulder. You can't do it - the learning on the job, and the learning by doing that is the essence of development work in a cooperative aid relationship can't be done until you have a very good rational to get the access which is denied to food aid programs. That's been our experience, that's been the experience of the other European, Japanese, South Korean, Chinese, Russian, Austrian, Canadian NGOs working on the ground in North Korea. Because you do get the access. I should add that the joint-recovery teams of the U.S. Military have access in some of the provinces that the World Food Program is denied. So we shouldn't just make the mistake of thinking that we're denied access to those provinces because of their gulags, which is the story you hear in Washington. It's not that simple. Provincial access in North Korea has much more to do with the infrastructure of the counterpart affiliate than it has to do with denied zones.

So the energy situation is dire; it's interrelated with all the other crucial problems; it probably constitutes about a third of the total problem; and it should be tackled, as I said earlier, quickly, incrementally, small-scale, fast, cheap, bottom-up, labor intensive, end-use, efficiency-increasing ways to bring some power and some heat to these desperate people, not years down the line, but weeks, months, six months down the line. And that is entirely do-able in North Korea.

Thank you very much. I'd like to thank all the panelists for their very illuminative, if somewhat (understandably) depressing comments, and thank you all for coming.