Cablegate: South Korean Ngos' Uphill Struggle in North Korea


DE RUEHUL #0499/01 0730631
O 130631Z MAR 08




E.O. 12958: N/A


1. (SBU) In early March, DPRK officials faxed a request to
their ROK counterparts at Mt. Kumgang saying that South
Korean aid workers should "temporarily" halt visits to Mt.
Kumgang and Kaesong, but noting that aid would still be
accepted, with no further explanation. The message
encapsulated North Korea's attitude toward South Korean NGOs:
maximize aid, minimize NGOs' influence, and communicate
cryptically, a situation that has changed little since the
2003 publication of "Paved with Good Intentions," edited by
Scott Snyder and Gordon Flake, about NGOs' early experiences
in the DPRK.

2. (SBU) Nevertheless, many of the 73 ROK NGOs that have
undertaken to help the North, as well as religious groups
such as Seoul's Full Gospel Church, which broke ground on a
USD 20 million cardiac hospital in Pyongyang in December, are
determined to persevere, motivated by a dogged sense of
humanitarian or Christian obligation to their fellow Koreans.
Representatives of leading South Korean NGOs say that
patience and hard bargaining have allowed them to gradually
expand their reach beyond Pyongyang, and beyond food aid to
agricultural development and operating cooperative farms (15
NGOs), and medicine and health (10 NGOs). It is not clear
whether ROKG support for such NGO activities, which funded
about 15 percent of the USD 1 billion worth of aid in 2006,
will continue in the Lee Myung-bak administration. End


3. (SBU) To get a sense of ROK NGO activities and
difficulties working in the DPRK, we recently met with
several of the most active groups.

-- Korean Sharing Movement (KSM)

In 1994, the DPRK announced that it needed food aid,
confirming reports of severe shortages rumored since 1991,
according to a representative from the Korean Sharing
Movement (KSM), which was one of the first ROK NGOs to
respond. The immediate humanitarian need was rice and corn,
which NGOs had to provide indirectly through the South Korean
Red Cross, due to ROKG restrictions at the time. When
President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2002) launched the Sunshine
Policy, the ROKG took over providing food assistance. NGOs
such as KSM turned to improving agricultural production and
other areas such as medical technology. As a result,
emergency and relief aid, which accounted for 96 percent of
ROK private aid to the North during 1995-1998, made up only
37 percent during 2002-2006, replaced by agricultural
assistance (46 percent) and health/medical assistance (17
percent). The DPRK encouraged the shift, seeking
developmental rather than humanitarian aid since 2005. KSM,
one of the most active ROK NGOs, which has served as a de
facto coordinator for smaller NGOs and local ROK governments
(such as Gyeonggi Provincial government) active in the North,
has patiently expanded its operations in terms of number,
type and location. The KSM representative said that the
basic food situation in North Korea had improved enough from
the mid-1990s famine era that now many NGOs' focus was on
providing more protein and increasing the North's food
production capacity through agricultural technology projects.
Like the other NGO representatives, the KSM representative
said that his organization typically sends groups of aid
workers to the DPRK roughly once or twice each month.

-- Okedongmu ("Shoulder-to-Shoulder")

Okedongmu targets mothers and children, providing soymilk and
school supplies and operating a specialized hospital for
pregnant women in Pyongyang that opened in 2006. The NGO
also established a pediatric section of a hospital in Nampo,
on the DPRK's east coast, and is building a new pediatric
wing at the Pyongyang Medical School where rural physicians
(with abysmal qualifications, according to the
representative) will be trained. After trying and failing to
get permission to train DPRK physicians at Seoul National
University (SNU), Okedongmu also set up a program to train a
few physicians in China for six months. A desired next step
is to get permission for South Korean physicians to lecture
to North Korean medical students and personnel in the DPRK;
only individual ROK physicians have been allowed brief visits
so far.

-- World Vision Korea

South Korea's World Vision NGO is independent from the
international NGO, is the only ROK NGO with an office in
North Korea (Pyongyang), and seems uniquely successful.
Following Kim Jong-il's 1998 decree that North Koreans should
pursue potatoes as a main source of food, World Vision Korea
established a potato-seed research center in Pyongyang, since
expanding the effort -- to the envy of other NGOs "stuck" in
Pyongyang -- to five other areas of the country, including 57
hectares of land for research on potatoes and other
vegetables. The NGO also sponsors an annual symposium on
agriculture in Pyongyang (December 2007 was the most recent
one) that brings 40 ROK academics to the DPRK, and will train
five DPRK scientists on seed development technology in China
this year.

-- Full Gospel Church

Over half of the ROK NGOs working in the DPRK have a
religious focus, according to the Ministry of Unification,
though they know from the outset that proselytizing is
excluded. Seoul's 750,000-member Full Gospel Church made
news in December 2007 when it broke ground on a USD 20
million cardiac hospital in Pyongyang, including a planned
USD 5 million from the Ministry of Unification's inter-Korean
funds. The church sent 250 of its members to Pyongyang on a
special chartered flight from Seoul for the groundbreaking
ceremony, and held a joint worship service with a North
Korean congregation in Pyongyang's Chilgol official
Protestant Church. An elder of the Full Gospel Church active
in the project said that the full cost of the hospital will
exceed USD 40 million, with discussions of what equipment to
get and how to pay for it just beginning. The DPRK wants to
insist on the latest-model medical equipment, without
addressing issues such as adequate electricity and water
-- Presbyterian Church of Korea

Another overtly religious effort is that of the Presbyterian
Church of Korea, a sub-denomination of the Presbyterian
Church, whose elders' committee paid to rebuild the Bongsoo
Protestant Church in Pyongyang (the other official church in
Pyongyang) and has provided disaster relief after recent
floods in the DPRK. The organization has also worked on
agricultural development and disaster relief. The
organization's representative said that the group is trying
to help North Koreans because "it is a sin to ignore their
sufferings," but she also expressed dismay at having to hand
over bags of flour to DPRK officials after the 2006 floods,
without having any way of knowing who would end up with the
flour. "We just counted out the bags, got a receipt, and
then who knows?" she said.


4. (SBU) In separate conversations, all of the NGO
representatives we met with described frustrating efforts to
reach and keep agreements with their DPRK interlocutors,
claiming little insight into the DPRK bureaucracy. Of the 73
ROK NGOs active in the DPRK (based on required registration
with the Ministry of Unification), all but one are considered
"social" organizations and are thus assigned to the National
Reconciliation Council as their counterpart, while World
Vision Korea has the relatively good fortune to interact with
the National Economic Cooperation Federation for the
"economic" nature of their activities, which has given them
access to areas off-limits to other South Korean NGOs. Both
of those DPRK organizations are formally under the Asia
Pacific Peace Committee, charged with handling relations with
South Korea, but now the two bodies act rather autonomously,
according to the KSM representative. Meanwhile, the Chosun
Christian Federation (CCF) handles religious NGOs and the
Flood Damage Recovery Agency handles foreign NGOs. Medical
projects require interaction with the DPRK's Medical

5. (SBU) KSM's representative said that there was continual
tension between the NGOs, which wanted to get out of
Pyongyang and do a wider variety of projects involving more
contact with North Korean residents, and the DPRK officials,
who insisted on having most activities in Pyongyang, probably
because of its hand-picked population, thus limiting the
interaction with North Koreans. NGOs sometimes win the
tug-of-war only by threatening to walk away.

6. (SBU) While showing us the pictures of the excavation site
for USD 20 million hospital that the Full Gospel Church is
building in Pyongyang, the church's representative said that
the process was an "unending, long-lasting series of
negotiations," and that he would have often chosen to give up
on the effort had it not been for has sense of duty as a
Christian believer.

7. (SBU) The Okedongmu representative noted that shifting to
hands-on development assistance was a good step for ROK NGOs,
because NGO workers now get more frequent access to sites.
She said she developed a close working relationship with a
Counselor on the National Reconciliation Council, but the
official, like others, was rotated out of the position after
18 months. Even so, local DPRK officials have sometimes
helped push agreements up the chain of command to get central
government approval. She added that her organization had to
be careful not to make a big deal of DPRK authorities'
failure to live up to their side of an agreement, such as
providing a certain amount of material at a certain time,
because "stronger" DPRK organizations often absconded with
designated materials or equipment. DPRK officials are also
sometimes reluctant to agree to allow NGOs to start projects
because they see themselves as prone to losing face if the
projects can't be completed because of shortcomings on the
DPRK side.

8. (SBU) Evidently, perseverance gets results: the Full
Gospel Church, after threatening several times to suspend the
project entirely, eventually reached agreement with its
counterpart, the Chosun Christian Federation, to reduce the
floor area of the hospital from 30,000 square meters (m2) to
20,000 m2, and to include 100 m2 for worship space and 60 m2
for a pastor's office. But the resulting contract is
"tricky." It is difficult to know whether the hard-fought
agreements, such as the church's insistence that it have a
role in the management of the hospital and the selection of
patients, will hold up in practice. As evidence of the
DPRK's real interest in the project, the church was able to
send 100 truckloads of construction materials overland for
the first time through Kaesong City in December 2007,
bringing 2,500 tons of materials to the site; most NGO aid
shipments still go through the longer sea route. The
representative said that he is well aware the agreements with
the DPRK can go awry, so he has taken 12 three-day trips to
Kaesong and Pyongyang since taking on the project in 2007, to
try to keep things on track, and the two sides exchange fax
messages through Kaesong Industrial Complex every day.

9. (SBU) Other veteran NGO representatives also described
making progress through patience and hard bargaining. It
took one and a half years of take-it-or-leave-it insistence
before Okedongmu got agreement to build a rural center that
provides soymilk and other protein-rich foods in Kangnam
County, about 20 miles south of Pyongyang, because the DPRK
officials feared "ideological contamination" of children
there, the NGO's representative told us. The NGO is allowed
access to the village only once every three months. She
explained that UN agencies such as UNICEF and foreign NGOs
were allowed wider rural access because they were "safe"
without Korean speakers.

10. (SBU) World Vision Korea fared better because in 2001 its
counterpart became the more development-focused National
Economic Cooperation Federation, which recognized World
Vision Korea as contributing to the development of the DPRK
economy. With the help of the ROKG Ministry of Agriculture,
which sent an official along, World Vision was able to do a
national survey of North Korean agricultural areas before
deciding where best to locate its potato-seed centers. The
DPRK government reacted enthusiastically, seeing World
Vision's work as a "revolution in agricultural development,"
the representative said. Notwithstanding its advantageous
relationship, World Vision "fought for a year" before it was
allowed to set up a noodle factory in Pyongwon, north of
Pyongyang near the Sunan International Airport, that feeds
10,000 people per day. Later, World Vision was able get DPRK
government agreement at the county level to set up health
centers at cooperative farms. The lesson seems to be that
NGOs should try to land the National Economic Cooperation
Federation as their counterpart, but the trend has been in
the other direction: after the 2001 floods, which attracted
help from many new ROK NGOs, the DPRK government assigned all
but World Vision to the National Reconciliation Council.


11. (SBU) NGO representatives, several of whom travel to
North Korea multiple times each year, were hesitant to
generalize about conditions in North Korea, recognizing that
they were presented with a filtered picture on each visit.
For example, one western NGO representative who spoke good
Korean, unbeknownst to his host, said that he overheard a
rural official and his guide discussing how to answer a basic
question he had asked about whether a certain area produced
enough food for the local population.

12. (SBU) Representatives doing medical work provided the
most disturbing reports. The Okedongmu representative
visited six hospitals in Pyongyang with physicians from Seoul
National University, who were shocked at how bad conditions
were, saying that "no treatment would have been better." In
another hospital, technicians had never seen modern X-ray
equipment so the NGO had to provide basic instruction on
operating the equipment and reading the film. Realizing that
medical personnel there knew very little, the NGO returned
with basic medical textbooks showing how to spot pneumonia
and other diseases. Still, DPRK officials long resisted the
idea of Okedongmu building a new hospital, agreeing only
after the ROK Ministries of Unification and Health

13. (SBU) The World Vision representative said that a
Pyongyang hospital his team visited had neither saline
solution nor intravenous bottles, instead using inverted beer
bottles filled with water for some patients, adding that the
method was tested on rabbits beforehand. A representative
from Good Friends, another ROK NGO said to have a large
network of contacts in the DPRK, said that in many rural
areas doctors spend three days per week searching for herbal
medicines and treat patients with these remedies on the other
three days.

14. (SBU) As for living standards among the North Koreans
they saw and interacted with, the Okedongmu representative
said that conditions were definitely more difficult outside
of Pyongyang. It was difficult to know about food
sufficiency, but a general observation was that coastal and
farm areas did better. Hence, her observation was that
people in urban areas besides Pyongyang (special population
with the only functioning Public Distribution System for
food) such as Nampo had a hard time finding enough food. She
added that she and her colleagues were most struck by the
lack of technology and transportation available to most North
Koreans. They kept their eyes open for bicycles and dogs in
villages as signs that people were doing relatively well (a
method used by anthropologists to gauge the development level
of a particular area), but they saw few of either, except in
few areas such as Kaesong, near the Kaesong Industrial
Complex. The World Vision representative said that his NGO
had learned that crop production had declined in recent years
because of lack of fertilizer and pesticides.


15. (SBU) Among the NGO representatives we met, there were no
apologists for the DPRK regime. Instead, there was abundant
frustration at the regime and the restrictions it places on
private South Koreans trying to help fellow Koreans. Even
so, we were struck by the doggedness of these individuals,
who have decided to stick with giving agricultural and
medical assistance to North Korea even though they know that
some aid is diverted, that target populations may not be
those most in need, and that the North Korean bureaucracy
wants to accept the aid without being polluted by the ROK's
influence. This private stream of assistance and contact
with the North is likely to become a more important element
in South-North relations this year, since it is not clear how
much, if any, official assistance the ROKG will provide.

© Scoop Media

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