Nancy Lindborg, Vice President, Mercy Corps International
Han Park, Professor of Political Science, University of Georgia
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
HAN PARK: North Koreans are a very stubborn, very proud people. Even when mass numbers of people are dying, they are saying, as we speak they are saying, “We really appreciate your food donations. But we are not going to beg for it.”
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, a look inside the tragedy of North Korea.
NANCY LINDBORG: We don’t really know the extent of the problem. We don’t have clear information on how many people have died or are dying, what are the real diseases that are killing people. With better information along those lines we could probably work more effectively with the North Koreans to help save more people.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
PORTER: North Korea is not in the news in the U.S. very often. When it is, the story almost always centers on one of two things: famine or security. This week on Common Ground we begin a two-part series examining these twin issues. How can we best serve the humanitarian needs of the people of North Korea; and second, how can we lower the military tension on the Korean Peninsula. In Part I this week, we’ll talk with two Americans deeply involved in North Korea’s humanitarian crisis. But first, listen to these comments from U.S. Congressman Tony Hall. Hall, a Democrat from Ohio’s 3rd District, is Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus Task Force on Hunger. He visited North Korea this month just as the country prepares to enter it’s fourth winter of famine.
TONY HALL: When you go in hospitals, there’s no heat. And I was there and I had a sweater on and a heavy coat, and it’s colder in the hospitals than it is outside. It’s pretty cold now in North Korea. Hospitals have no heat. Buildings don’t have heat. Cars don’t have energy. When you go in the hospitals the other thing you’ll notice is there’s not antibiotics. You’ll see people, we went to an operating room, we could see it through the window, that they had to operate, they had to operate on this person by sunlight because there was no light, there was no energy. They have no generators. And as a result of that, because they don’t have pain medication or anesthesia, they have to operate by holding the person down.
This is an example of cotton balls. And we took that picture because these are used cotton balls that are used in surgery. And when they get done using them they wash them, then they put them out on the window sill. And they use them again. Amazing.
PARK: It’s very bad. I’ve been there quite regularly, three or four times a year in this decade. And I haven’t seen a whole lot of improvement.
PORTER: This is Professor Han Park. He’s an expert on North Korea from the University of Georgia.
PARK: I took local trains to different villages. And I visited schools and orphanages and all that. And not a whole lot of change as far as the general people’s life condition is concerned.
PORTER: Medically, I mean are there medical problems? Physical problems?
PARK: Yeah. Certainly two categories. One of course the severe shortage of food that we all know. What we know a little less about is the seriousness of medical goods, equipment, supplies. I visited, for example, the maternity hospital in Pyongyang quite recently. And that hospital is supposed to be one of the best hospitals in the country. But they didn’t have the blood transfusion tube, for example, so they were not able to use that—blood transfusion. Which could have saved them many lives. And children were born with seizures. They didn’t have any kind of medication. And they are losing children. And a very, very deplorable. And they got some material from the United States, from a charity organization, which included Band-Aids and gauze and they were trying to re-use them. And we never re-use here. So they were washing and trying to sterilize. And so in other words that’s a very, very bad situation.
LINDBORG: My observations as well as those of many of my colleagues in the humanitarian relief community is that in addition to what is, I think by all considered to be quite a severe food shortage, there is the corollary medical problem as well. And these two things go hand-in-hand, both of which end up with substantial increase in deaths, as well as a lowered birth rate.
PORTER: This is Nancy Lindborg. She’s Vice President of Mercy Corps International, one of only a handful of private voluntary organizations allowed to bring aid into North Korea.
LINDBORG: Unfortunately, I would say that one of the largest barriers that we have to responding more effectively, from a humanitarian perspective, is that we don’t really know the extent of the problem. We don’t have clear information on how many people have died or are dying, what are the real diseases that are killing people and how has that death rate risen. I think that with better information along those lines we could probably work more effectively with the North Koreans to help save more people.
PARK: Yeah. I think the number of people who died of starvation as well as medical problems, although we do not know exact number or even range of numbers, but there is no question about the fact that large numbers of people, ranging anywhere from 300,000, to 800,000, perhaps a million people, have died each of the last three to four years. And that’s equivalent to at least ten percent of the population. And remaining ninety percent, they are not up and running healthy. So we are talking about a very severe health problem. And I am particularly concerned about children’s health. Malnutrition at that level may contribute to mental problems or not healthy growth of the mind. Which certainly bothers me greatly, because these children will make decisions, important decisions in time.
PORTER: Mr. Park, what about the psychological state of the North Koreans? I mean, how do they feel at this juncture in their history?
PARK: There are different groups in North Korea. Certainly the masses, perhaps sixty, seventy percent of the people, are totally uninformed or ill-informed of the outside world. And they are completely brainwashed. They believe what they have been told to believe. And that’s understandable, given the closed nature of the society. There are people who really believe in the evils outside, especially across the border, South Korea, from a nationalist point of view. There are people who are true believers in their doctrine. But I think most of the people in the leadership have a calculated defense of the system. Because the alternative is not very rosy to them. So in terms of stability of the system, I think the system is quite stable. Not because they are feeding the people but because of the political structure and political culture.
PORTER: Ms. Lindborg, we know that there are things that the North Koreans are doing that we may say, hamper, the ability of the outside world to help. But putting that aside for a moment, I’ll come back to that in a moment, what is it that we could do, in the short-term and in the long-term, from the outside, to make better for North Koreans.
LINDBORG: I think there’s a complicated answer to that question, and it’s one that all of us in the humanitarian community are struggling with. We see that there is a clock that’s ticking very quickly. And that clock is measuring the rising donor impatience with providing food in an environment—food and medical supplies—in an environment where there isn’t the kind of transparent and accountability that assures everybody that the aid is being used effectively. That clock is ticking very quickly also, as it measures off people who are dying or suffering. I think as Mr. Park quite rightly mentioned, the developmental issues that are of great concern in young children who suffer from ongoing malnutrition. I think that your question can only be answered in part, I think, by the clock that measures the North Koreans’ willingness to engage with the international community. And this is not a famine situation similar to what you would see in other parts of the world. And that in fact is one of the problems, is that you are never going to have CNN pictures of dire famine victims stumbling through the streets. I think early on in the situation many of us thought, “Oh, if we can just get media in then we could help the world understand what the problem was and then more effectively help North Korea.”
In fact, for many of who have been there, what you see is a very efficiently run country, a very disciplined population. You are not going to be, there is not anarchy and chaos in the streets that’s visible to an outside visitor. And so I think that ultimately the answer to your question lies somewhere in that mixture of factors. In the meantime, what the humanitarian community is doing is continuing to try to work as effectively as we can with our partners in North Korea to try to better understand what their issues and constraints are, help them to understand what we need to do to do the job better. And that includes trying to increase our access to better understand who it is that is in need; better access to, whether it be the children or the elderly or those who are in hospitals, to help us monitor in a way that assures our donor community that the food is being used effectively.
PORTER: Mr. Park.
PARK: Yeah, one more element there is kind of long-term, intermediate-term solution. In order to feed North Koreans, every day we need ten thousand tons of grain. And that’s really pouring water in a bottomless jar. Somehow we have to help them develop increased productivity. Agricultural modernization, technology introduction; these areas, through government and non-government organizations, seems to be very vital. And another element that frustrates humanitarian people is the fact that North Koreans are a very stubborn, very proud people. Even when mass numbers of people are dying, they are saying, as we speak they are saying, “We really appreciate your food donations. But we are not going to beg for it.” That’s what they are saying. And if you go, they are not going to show you areas that might find themselves embarrassed.
LINDBORG: Mm hmm.
PARK: So, if you go there, if you visit where they want you to go visit, you’re not going to see the real picture. I’ve been visiting North Korea since 1981. Many times. This year alone, 1998, I’ve visited three times. The first five, six years I was just seeing superficially. But over the years I have developed a sort of trust and I have been able to see the back streets, strolling around myself. So the real picture looms clearer to me. And which is very gloom.
PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with Han Park, an expert on North Korea and a Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia. Our other guest is Nancy Lindborg, Vice President of Mercy Corps International, a relief organization operating in North Korea. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
LINDBORG: I think that there is still a gap between understanding on our side of what the issues are that the North Koreans grapple with as they deal with a relatively new influx of foreigners. And they don’t’ yet understand what we need to do to effectively monitor the food. We have been engaged in this for, as I said, over two years now. And I think that if you take a snapshot right now that yes, we’re not monitoring as rigorously as we would like to; compared to two years ago there’s been significant progress. We’ve now had sixteen long-term monitors in. That’s just the American PVO consortium. Right now there are over a hundred foreigners, including the World Food Program, our consortium, and various European groups. That’s a huge change that has definitely indicated some changes in Pyongyang as well. And so I think it’s really important to chart what’s happened over the last two years and where we started. And so we are hoping to continue incrementally to better understand each other and to do a better job of monitoring our food aid.
PARK: I think from North Korea’s perspective, in fact several of them directly told me this, there are two things that really they find themselves humiliated about. First of all, they really hate to see their own children starving and malnutrition and dying, be seen throughout the world on television screens. That’s so humiliating, embarrassing, scenes. The trouble is we outside, the humanitarian people, we need those scenes to generate contributions and sympathy. So there is a great deal of discrepancy there. We need something they don’t want to show us. The part of the reason is they are very, as I said, a very proud people. And another element is exactly the monitoring. Monitoring in their minds presupposes distrust of North Koreans. And North Koreans are telling me that “We know our priority. We know who are starving. And this is our business. But coming in, telling us who to feed, where to deliver these things, that’s an infringement in sovereignty on the part of the country.” That’s the way they feel. So, we have a certain problems to these value differences and orientational differences.
LINDBORG: I would strongly second that analysis. I think this is something that we’ve been learning and working with over the last two years. And I hope making progress on both sides. Because I think on the flip side that the North Koreans don’t understand that when we go in with these programs, the humanitarian community, that there are certain accountability standards that are applied world-wide.
PARK: Mmm hmm.
LINDBORG: And it has less to do with the regime of policing and more to do with doing a needs assessment that helps everybody, including the host government, understand where is the most useful targeting of the food. I think that it’s been an important set of discussions back and forth between those of us in the humanitarian community and our counterparts in North Korea. We are still working to better understand….
LINDBORG: ….one another’s perspective. And the critical ingredient there, I agree, is trust.
PARK: Right, right.
LINDBORG: Trust that we’re both going to the same goal.
LINDBORG: Which is in our perspective, for our mission, is to feed the starving people, to feed those young children who are otherwise going to be developmentally handicapped for life.
PARK: Right, right. Sure. I understand that.
LINDBORG: Yeah, no, I think it’s a useful, very important point.
PARK: So that’s, somewhere along the line North Koreans would have to compromise. You really cannot have the cake and eat it too. So, you know, in order to generate large amounts of aid, free of charge, they have to learn, they have to give in some pride, if necessary. And I think they are in the process of learning the lesson in the hard way.
PORTER: Right now in broad terms, where is that aid coming from? Is it—and not just a country—but is it voluntary, is it individuals, is it government money? Who is providing aid to North Korea?
LINDBORG: In terms of food aid, the World Food Program issued an appeal for about 600,000 metric tons. That appeal covers a year period that expires in March 1999. The majority of the food that has answered that appeal has come from the United States. There has been—and that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 400,000 metric tons—there has been additional aid that’s come in from the European Community and a little bit from South Korea. There’s been virtually, a very small amount from Japan. So those are the primary donor countries. Additionally there’s been a fairly robust response from the U.S. non-governmental organizations, who have brought in medical supplies, agricultural inputs, such as seeds, fertilizer, pesticides—things that are critical for a better crop. And that is all privately donated. So that has come from a lot of people in the United States who have sent in their checks saying, “Yeah, we want to make a difference.”
PORTER: Does Mercy Corps raise private donations?
LINDBORG: Yes. Yes.
PORTER: Do you find it difficult—in the absence of the pictures—do you find it difficult to tell people the story of what’s happening in North Korea?
LINDBORG: Yes and no. I think that it’s not like some of the situations we’ve worked in, in Sudan for example, where you have very gripping dramatic photographs. And people are much more willing to open up their hearts and their checkbooks. However, I do think that people have been very responsive to North Korea despite predictions that because of the Korean War that there, that people would be not at all sympathetic to the situation. I think that North Korea has been a mystery to many of us in the United States. We don’t know much about it. We haven’t had much engagement with it as a nation. And I think that despite that people have been responsive to what they understand to be a fairly dire food crisis and have attempted to reach out, both in terms of working there, in the case of the non-profit relief organizations, and also the many, many people who have contributed. Not only to Mercy Corps but to other organizations that are working there.
PORTER: Mr. Park, any comment?
PARK: Yeah, I think one problem with the whole business of generating humanitarian aid is the perception that North Korea has a wrong political and administrative system. And unless they change or reform their system they are not going to be able to do anything. And I think that’s partly wrong. Unlike other major socialist systems—the Soviet Union, and the former Eastern European socialist systems—North Korea is a very small country. And the kind of mismanagement is not really there. I don’t think land is misused or abused. The only thing there we need to realize is that North Korea is mostly, perhaps 80% mountainous. And they needed over the years to expand arable land. As a result they cut down trees, many trees, so which backfired. Topsoil washed down and all that. And now they’re struggling. It’s not really political, administrative mismanagement, but maybe wrong judgment in management of the land.
LINDBORG: And I think those comments speak to what is ultimately the larger problem, is that it’s not really suited to be self-sustaining agriculturally. North Korea, with the combination of very little arable and a short growing season, has a problem, if, in terms of being able feed itself. Ultimately they need to be able to purchase food from abroad.
PARK: Sure. That’s policy.
LINDBORG: Right, but so in terms of looking at longer-term solutions it does require something clearly beyond just sending better seed….
PARK: It’s an economic policy, yes. Policy changes as opposed to, when we say, you know, reform the system, we refer to mismanagement. Mismanagement. I don’t think the problem, food shortage, all these problems in North Korea, have resulted from mismanagement . But perhaps the self-reliance policy, which was in their way necessitated by the international environment, I don’t think self-reliance is something they chose. But they had to chose.
PORTER: Americans and perhaps other people in the world—Japanese and South Koreans—may feel genuinely threatened by North Korea. Both because of the potential for nuclear weapons and because of the potential for new ballistic missile technologies. And they may also feel that a country with such dire humanitarian problems should not have a nuclear program or a ballistic missile program. What response do you give to Americans who might think that way.
PARK: Well, North Korea is threatened, North Korea-South Korea, with many stronger-fold economy., U.S. troops, 36-some thousand ground troops there. And with all kinds of sophisticated weaponry. And North Koreans are threatened. And they lost all their traditional allies. They are alienated, they develop a sense of siege mentality. And I think that is very dangerous, especially when a country is equipped with the kind of military capability. And I think the security issue, North Korea being unpredictable, is a real problem, real issue.
LINDBORG: I would agree with everything that Mr. Park just said. I would just add to that from our perspective, one of the best things that we can do to counter that is try to help North Korea engage in the international community and to help them understand that there, at least at a grassroots level—and I don’t operate in the policy corridors, I am representative of a non-profit organization—but I think there is great value in the people-to-people contact that you get from having folks go over and say, you know, “Look we’re not interested in having your population starve. We’re not interested in having your population starve. We’re not interested in having you isolated and alienated and having your children dying.” And I think you can’t underestimate the importance of that as a piece of our overall approach to North Korea. I think ultimately it comes down to, are we going to try to constructively engage these, this nation, that has been historically rather isolated, or not. And I think that the “or not” represents a much more threatening alternative.
PARK: I’d like to commend what the non-governmental organizations, humanitarian groups, have done. What the government of the United States has failed to do for decades. And that is going in there, opening up the system, opening up the society. In the city of Pyongyang I saw at least 20, maybe 25, 26, non-profit, non-government organizations, with their transportation, their trucks, offices at Korea Hotel. So they are there. And the North Korean people are exposed to these foreigners. And I think that’s something in the long run, quite desirable process, that as I said, the government has failed to accomplish.
PORTER: That is Han Park, Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia. Our other guest was Vice President of Mercy Corps International, Nancy Lindborg, Next week, we’ll continue our look at North Korea, with a discussion on the ways to reduce the military tension on the Korean peninsula. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
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