A local resident cycles past a mural depicting former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in the North Korean port of Rajin, July 18, 2014. Photo: Reuters / Yuri Maltsev
A local resident cycles past a mural depicting former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in the North Korean port of Rajin, July 18, 2014. Photo: Reuters / Yuri Maltsev

Recent news that a major international organization is ending its aid to North Korea underscores a significant problem in dealings with Pyongyang.

International aid group The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria (or simply The Global Fund) will no longer fund treatment in North Korea due to an inability to determine that its money is being used as intended. Having donated more than US$100 million in the last seven years, the group’s decision stands to impact hugely on North Koreans in need.

The move highlights an issue that has faced a number of aid groups in North Korea – transparency is problematic as Pyongyang does not always allow adequate oversight of how money is spent and to whom food and medicines are ultimately delivered. North Korea strictly controls contact between its citizens and outside groups – even NGOs with the best of intentions.

Those favored to live in the North’s capital have access to better medical care and enjoy better nutrition, but there are huge disparities between Pyongyang and people elsewhere. Outsiders find that access to the needy – those not in elite groups, who are therefore not allowed to reside in the city – is limited. Aid groups able to travel widely in the countryside are excellent sources of information for diplomats and journalists. Not all aid groups enjoy such privileged access, however.

The most vulnerable and sickly are those held in political prison camps, to which aid workers are not allowed entry. Pyongyang claims to provide its people with free and adequate medical care, but unrestricted access throughout the country would expose that as a lie. Indeed, the issue of proper access to penal institutions was a stumbling block for European diplomats seeking to consult the North on how it could upgrade its judicial system a decade ago.

Now, aid agencies may be about to face an even larger challenge.

A number of agencies whose missions involve bringing food and medicine to those who need it in North Korea have long complained that their work is hindered by a lack of access. However a new report about human rights groups partnering with US intelligence agencies to learn more about the health and nutritional needs of the incarcerated populations significantly complicates their appeals to the regime for co-operation.

Obtaining information from America’s National Geospatial Intelligence Agency is useful to humanitarian and rights groups in determining – among other things – the location and size of North Korea’s various re-education, labor, and political prison camps. Detection of mass graves is also furthered.

There is a very major risk associated with the alliance of aid and intelligence agencies, however. Even if the former are only receiving information from the latter and not reporting back what they find inside the country, there is a possibility that all humanitarian groups become tarnished in Pyongyang’s eyes. The likelihood of requests for access to off-the-beaten-track locations being denied can only increase if the regime suspects it is being spied on.

In short, it will be very difficult to convince authorities in North Korea, that, just because aid groups have received information from US intelligence agencies, that doesn’t mean aid workers are gathering intelligence for Pyongyang’s enemies.

Thus, the value to humanitarian agencies of information coming from intelligence organizations could be offset by increased suspicion from the regime and, consequently, greater control over how aid workers can move about the countryside. The net result may well be negative for the neediest populations in North Korea.

On the flip-side, the release of downgraded intelligence on the North’s gulags and mass graves will make it easier to mount human rights violation cases against the Kim regime. Public discussion and exposure of such matters is something the North greatly fears.

Robert E. McCoy

Robert E. McCoy is a former US Air Force intelligence specialist. He was stationed in Asia for fourteen years and his focus remains on events in and around Northeast Asia. He can be contacted via his website http://musingsbymccoy.com/.

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