Demystifying our work in North Korea

North Korea

August 20, 2010

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In North Korea, Mercy Corps programs focus on alleviating hunger by expanding agricultural production. We also invite North Korean officials to the U.S. as part of building a humanitarian bridge between our country and theirs.

I recently talked about our work in North Korea (also known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) including what it's like to host North Korean officials here in the U.S. with David Austin, a Portland-based program officer responsible for managing Mercy Corps programs in North Korea.

Q: First, can you give us a little history? When and how did Mercy Corps begin working in North Korea?

David Austin: Well, Mercy Corps has had programs in the DPRK for about 15 years. Our work began in 1996 when a North Korean diplomat to the UN began reaching out to aid agencies requesting help with agricultural production as there was a famine occurring in the country. One of the calls he made was to the late Ells Culver, who co-founded Mercy Corps. His response: "Sure! Let’s get started."

Q: What kind of programs do we have there?

A large portion of our work remains centered on agriculture — improving 
growing techniques and encouraging the bio-diversity of crops. In 2000, Mercy Corps supplied 35,000 apple cuttings to orchards in Qwail County to boost production, which began an ongoing project revolving around apple production.

Since that first shipment, we have sent an additional 200,000 apple rootstock which have been propogated into more than 900,000 apple trees. Our hope for the future is that Mercy Corps can help communities begin making value-added products like applesauce, apple cider or dried fruit bars.

We have also helped on smaller crop projects on an annual basis, such as grass seed, potatoes, poplar trees and fish farms.

When there have been extraordinary circumstances, Mercy Corps has helped in times of crisis, such as providing medicines during the floods of 2007, food crises in 2008-2009 and, most recently, Mercy Corps was part of a USAID-funded initiative to bring medical supplies and electricity to hospitals in North Korea.

Q: What did this hospital initiative entail?

Mercy Corps purchased and installed five generators in five different hospitals in South Hwangae provinces with the help of volunteer electricians from here in Oregon. We then returned to monitor how the new generators were put to use and to assess the hospitals’ material
Finding the hospitals short on many basic supplies, Mercy Corps arranged for the delivery of several ultrasound machines, X-ray units, power conditioners and other needed supplies, such as operating beds and operating lights. I was able to visit the hospitals myself right after these supplies were delivered along with Nancy Lindborg, Mercy 
Corps' president.

Q: But there's a diplomatic element to our programs as well, right?

Yes, you might say that we deliver more than just direct assistance. Through our aid work, Mercy Corps plays a unique role as a relational bridge between people in the United States and people in the DPRK. The nature of our work helps create these relationships, because it creates common ground. For instance, most of our work centers on agriculture. Agriculture is a science, which is, by nature, apolitical. Cooperation on these non-controversial fronts creates a space for engagement that will one day, we hope, open a window for the political opportunity.

Q: Tell me more about what you mean by a "relational bridge."

The relationship that Mercy Corps has built has been an incredible asset. By building trust, we have been provided with opportunities to take leadership in times of crisis, such as the famine in 1997 and most recently in 2008 and 2009. Normally, aid organizations don’t operate in the country, but because of our relationship with officials there, Mercy Corps and a few other non-governmental organization (NGOs) were given unprecedented access. We were able to feed 890,000 people for eight months and crisscross the country visiting with the people who received the aid. We had open access to the areas we served, and in many cases we were
the first encounter North Koreans ever had with an American. 

Q: But constructing a bridge to such an insular country can't be easy.

That's true. Few North Koreans are permitted to leave the country, but we have had the unique opportunity of inviting members of the Korean American Private Exchange Society, part of the government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to visit the U.S. These visits have been enriching experiences. They have given us the privilege of facilitating dialogue between state and local officials. Through these trips, we are able to extend the hospitality of our organization, present new ideas about our vision for the future and show that there are many similarities between our country and theirs.

Q: What do North Korean officials do when they visit?

They visit our city, meet civic, political, business and academic leaders whose work or interests might inspire or assist the North Koreans. Over the course of their visit, we may take them to visit the World Forestry Center, Oregon State University, and a national forest, the kinds of places where they can meet with experts on deforestation and agricultural productivity — two issues that the DPRK must address to reduce poverty.

We aim to build relationships and to facilitate the exchange of information. Our hope is that when these officials leave they will have experienced a deeper connection to our organization, our donors, our city and the vision we have. Hopefully, this helps them understand the many opportunities there are to expand our work into new areas in their country through a deeper partnership.

Q: What's the hoped-for result of these partnerships?

Our hope is that the years and resources we spend in North Korea will relieve suffering today, and lay the groundwork for deeper relationships in the future. It makes a difference that we are a U.S.-based organization because we invariably represent our country when we are there. Although we are not on a political mission, we are seen as Americans. Thus, our programs and history in the country serve as a reminder of what is good in our country.

I have heard many survivors of World War II break down in tears of gratitude for the food and aid they received from the United States after the war was over. By providing aid in North Korea, who knows what kind of friends we’re creating for the future? But I'm sure that these relationships will be of lasting value.