Humanitarian relief efforts have faced doubts about whether they are actually reaching the people of North Korea who need them most. The difficulties are tied to political debate, in the United States and South Korea, and the wariness of philanthropic interests to contribute money or resources to any effort that can be exploited by the North Korean regime.
David Austin is a program director for Mercy Corps, which has provided food assistance, agricultural development, medical relief and cultural exchanges for more than 12 years in North Korea. The agency’s core projects and relationships stem from apple orchards planted in Gwail County, South Hwanghae Province. Having worked with the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture and with the U.S. Department of State Interfaith Cooperative Initiative, Austin brings to bear experience that demonstrates how humanitarian efforts are reaching their mark in North Korea, that is, connecting aid with individuals and communities, and addressing the causes of suffering.
Christine Hong: Tell me about the work of Mercy Corps in North Korea.
David Austin: Mercy Corps, like other U.S. NGOs such as World Vision or Samaritan’s Purse, does humanitarian assistance. We mostly stay away from development work. There are some strict guidelines on doing work in North Korea that are set up by the Department of Commerce. We focus on humanitarian work around food security and medical relief, and we’ve been working on apple orchards for about 10 years. We first got involved in North Korea back in the late ’90s. As an organization, we’ve been going back two or three times a year. We’ve brought in a lot of medical equipment in hospitals. We helped five hospitals in South Hwanghae Province, in Haeju City, and in Gwail County, with X-ray machines, ultrasound equipment, patient monitors, and medicine on various occasions. It depends on what the need is.
CH: Can you speak about some of the challenges of arguing for humanitarian food aid for the people of a country with which the U.S. has been at war for 61 years?
DA: We’re not political actors.
We’re non-governmental organizations. We’re not out to meet a policy objective related to a particular national interest. Just by the definition of our agency as a humanitarian or a relief and development agency, our goal is to alleviate suffering, whether that’s from poverty, oppression, war or natural disaster.
Recently, somebody asked me about the food crisis, “Is this a manufactured crisis or a real crisis?” They were putting an adjective on the situation that demonstrated a political judgment: Is it a manufactured crisis or is it a natural crisis? The kids that we saw back in February when we were going through the countryside and going to hospitals—kids who are acutely malnourished—don’t know if it’s manufactured or natural. All they know is that it’s a crisis.
We have to step back from the question of whether the causes are politically tenable for us to go ahead and engage in a humanitarian response. That’s something Mercy Corps doesn’t do.
CH: A couple of months ago, I was in New York where I had the opportunity to meet and speak with a representative of the World Food Program, who spoke about what might be called “donor unwillingness,” for lack of a better term. When it comes to North Korea, there’s certainly a high degree of donor suspicion.
DA: The U.S. government made it pretty clear, back in the fall, that if the North Koreans needed food, they needed to ask the U.S. government directly. The North Koreans did. They made a specific appeal. They had a face-to-face meeting back in January in New York, which put the U.S. government in an awkward position. Now the North Koreans are asking for food, and the U.S. has to verify—and it’s important that they verify—that there really is a need. That’s where the U.S. NGOs came in. There are five U.S. NGOs: Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Mercy Corps, Global Resource Services and Christian Friends of Korea. We got together and said, “We’ll go in and do an assessment because both the North Koreans and the U.S. government asked us.”
In February, we went in, and frankly, I went in very suspicious. I was on the assessment team. I wasn’t sure we were going to see anything that really convinced me that we would make a recommendation one way or another. But we did have a lot of access to the things that we asked to see, and our team came away convinced that what we saw was a real need. We submitted a report. We verified that need.
Here’s what’s interesting. We submitted our report in February. The World Food Program, FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), and UNICEF did another assessment in March. I believe they went to all nine provinces. We put a couple of people on that team halfway through, and they came up with the same report. Then the U.S. government did its own assessment, and now ECHO (the Humanitarian Aid department of the European Commission), or the European community, has done their own assessment.
Every assessment that we know of has come up with the same findings. Namely, there is an extreme, chronic problem of hunger, with several incidents in the hospitals that are recorded as acute malnutrition-where somebody is dying from hunger.
CH: The situation has gone from chronic to acute?
DA: It’s moving that way, especially in the most vulnerable populations. And so you’ve had three UN agencies, five U.S. NGOs, a U.S. government factfinding team and a European government fact-finding team, all coming up with the same answers, verifying that there’s a need. This thing has been analyzed backwards and forwards. North Korea has been exposed. One of the things that I think we’ve failed to observe is that this is an opportunity for the United States to basically show its best face on foreign policy. Which is, we feed people who are in desperate situations, and we do it as a free gift.
When we were in North Korea, we asked people in our surveys in homes and institutions, “When is the last time you had enough food?” They said, “In 2008 or 2009.” We said, “Do you know where you got that food?” And they said, “Yes, we know who gave us that food. It was the U.S.” That’s remarkable.
The U.S. NGOs, in 2008, fed about 890,000 people for eight months, who received their food knowing it was a free gift from the American people. The fact that we can have that kind of diplomatic impact across the country with people at the county level is remarkable. During our recent assessment we revisited 19 counties, and everywhere we went, we were greeted very happily by local officials who remembered people on our assessment team who had been food monitors before.
CH: I also read that those apple trees you’ve taken over to North Korea are from Oregon. So there’s a little bit of Oregon in North Korea. (Austin is a native Oregonian.)
DA: That’s true. There is. And we’ve brought North Koreans to Oregon, and we’ve taken a lot of Oregonians to North Korea.
CH: The point that you raised earlier, about this being touted in certain circles as a manufactured emergency, there’s a sense within the Western and the South Korean media that the North Korean regime not only exaggerates the extent of its food crisis, but also diverts food aid to the military. Is the North Korean government exaggerating the scope and scale of the crisis, and is giving food aid tantamount to supporting North Korea’s military, if not nuclear program?
DA: [Commentary] about food aid being redirected to the political elite and suggested favors makes me realize whoever said that doesn’t know the kind of food that we give, because the kind of food that we give is a corn-soy porridge; it’s a fortified corn-soy blend called CSB within the NGO community. There’s only one way to eat it, and that is to put boiling water in it. It’s not like you can take CSB and mix it in with something else to make some sort of bread, like wheat flour, or rice. It’s a nutritionally based food to help people who are starving get enough nutrition so they don’t die. It’s not that tasty. That food, I am sure, does not get redirected to the political elite because nobody wants to eat it. It’s not like we’re sending over rice. In fact, in 2008 and 2009, we did not send rice, and we don’t send rice.
We send food that will help acutely malnourished people survive. The mainstay of our food program, CSB, is also something you can’t resell on the market. North Korea’s not going to take this food and then resell it to China because China doesn’t buy CSB.
Second, we monitor the food really closely. We have monitors at the port, who are a part of the bagging program, making sure that they count every bag when it comes off, when it gets onto the trains and into the trucks. They know where it’s supposed to go. We have people who are at the provincial and county warehouses going in and checking the records and regularly spontaneously checking the actual bags on site so we can verify those records to the actual commodities.
We were told by some South Korean political leaders, “We don’t doubt that you can get the food to the people, but even once they get the food, then the North Koreans come and take it away, and they don’t get to eat it. We’ve heard reports that the army will come and take the food away.”
My colleagues said, “You want us to watch all the people who eat it?” And they said, “Yes, we do.”
I said, “Hold on a minute.” We know that they eat the food because we are able to visibly see the difference in children in these orphanages, children’s homes and schools where the food is distributed, because children who get enough food have enough energy to play. That’s the very unique thing about kids: When they don’t have enough food, they don’t play.
In February, when we went into the children’s homes, all the kids were sitting down; they were very listless. Three-year-olds, normally when they see a foreigner, will giggle and run off to the side and point and run towards their teachers. But all the kids just sat there. Their hair isn’t black; it’s brownish blond. There’s a visual element that our monitors are able to verify. As part of our monitoring program, we’re able to take nutritional measurements of kids. It’s called a MUAC—Mid-Upper Arm Circumference—rating.
We have tight monitoring, and we have Korean speakers on our team. We can go anywhere within the provinces where we deliver food within a 24-hour notice and say, “All right, tomorrow we are going to go to Cholsan County in North Pyongan Province,” and our North Korean guides would have to take us to Cholsan County the next morning. And then we can say, “OK, in Cholsan County, we want to go to the food warehouse. We want to go to these five schools. We want to go to these two hospitals. We want to go to this children’s home.” We randomly get to go wherever we want.
In 2008 and 2009, we made a little over 1,600 such visits. Again, all of those places are seeing Americans, several of whom speak Korean, who are double-checking, making sure that the food is getting delivered, that it’s being eaten, and that they know where the food is coming from. By agreement with the North Koreans, anywhere our food is distributed, there has to be a statement in Korean with the U.S. flag that says, “This food is a free gift from the American people.”
CH: Those of us in the West tend to think of famine or food crisis in North Korea as the result of something sinister caused by the North Korean regime. What explains the recurrence of food shortages in North Korea, and what possibilities are there moving forward?
DA: The situation in North Korea requires a greater political solution. The food security situation is a symptom of the greater problem that you addressed at the very beginning, which is technically that the U.S. is still at war with North Korea. And so there are sanctions on North Korea. They are not allowed to get fuel; there’s no fertilizer.
And so the greater political situation has a tremendous effect on the lives of the ordinary people who are not privileged to be a part of that broader solution. They’re not policymakers. They’re ordinary farmers, and they’re suffering the consequences of the nonsolution to the political questions.
CH: Should individuals and communities be donating to relief organizations that furnish food aid to North Korea?
DA: The reason we should do it is because we can. We can save people’s lives. We can alleviate human suffering, and I think it’s really important to remember that this is the one way the people of the United States have been able to maintain a humanitarian and a positive link between our country and the people of North Korea. There is no other bridge. There aren’t sports exchanges. There’s no other link. This is it. And we’re able to send over American citizens to deliver the food in the name of people of the United States.
CH: Hazel Smith, a policy expert on North Korea, has argued that “the activity of the humanitarian community is helping to deliver solid information” when it comes to North Korea. North Korea is often described, from an intelligence perspective, as a black hole, and oftentimes people will describe it as a modern Hermit Kingdom. Smith argues against this. She states that since the days of famine in the 1990s the humanitarian community has been situated through substantial parts of North Korea and therefore is equipped to speak knowledgeably about North Korea. In its decade and a half of work in North Korea, what has Mercy Corps learned about North Korea, its people, its society, its government that might surprise Americans?
DA: Well, I think this is true not just of the people of North Korea; it’s just true of people around the world that they want to feed their kids, get their kids educated, enjoy their relationships with their neighbors, and see the next generation succeed them in terms of being more prosperous and successful. You see that wherever you go.
When we’re in the hospitals, I agree with Hazel Smith’s observation, we do get some great information, but it’s not information in terms of clandestine data. We have the opportunity to relate to people in the local communities on the local levels and learn about their lives, their work and their hopes.
We spend time with the hospital administrators, the farm workers, the managers of these large farms. We discover in very human terms that they’re really concerned about producing enough food and providing good medical care—just like you would find at the local hospital or the small county hospital in the States.
The other thing I’ve learned working at Mercy Corps is I have tremendous regard for the other U.S. NGOs who work there. They are some of the most amazing American citizens I have ever met.
DA: Because North Korea is a difficult place in which to work. I mean, it’s not like people are excited to give funds for North Korea. There’s only a handful of groups that work there. And they have a special calling. They speak Korean, even though the vast majority of these people are white Anglo Americans.
And they’ve been able to keep [tuberculosis] at bay. They’ve been able to provide food and inspiration. Because they care. To have these people there and to see what they’re doing under really difficult circumstances, it’s remarkable. I have such high regard for my colleagues at other NGOs who do this work, and I think one of the unique things about this food program, is that all of them have said, “When we do food on a national level, we want to do it together as one entity.”
They’ve asked Mercy Corps to be the lead agency, even though we’re by no means the largest. We end up being the lead, but we don’t do it in the name of just Mercy Corps. We say “the U.S. NGOs.” That’s how we’re known in North Korea in our food program. All five of us put aside our titles, and deliver food on behalf of the American people. It is really a remarkable little group.
*Christine Hong is a fellow with the Korea Policy Institute and an assistant professor of Asian American, critical Pacific Rim and Korean diasporic studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.