The puzzle of North Korea and development cooperation

As the North Korean food security landscape continues to sink in deep waters, it is quite reasonable to look at the aspect of international development cooperation that has been rigorously emphasized, keeping the SDGs in mind. 17 of Agenda 2030. Over the years, North Korea’s acute food crisis The scarcity associated with extreme natural disasters and the autocratic tendency of Kim Jong-un’s government to lash out against human rights fundamentals led to a crisis. In addition, its ballistic nuclear weapons and missile program landed in Pyongyang amid a series of international sanctions imposed by the UN, resulting in the suspension of economic trade; an embargo on nuclear weapons; and a halt in the export of coal and other minerals; and reduced imports of crude oil, petroleum products and luxury goods, etc. Nonetheless, humanitarian aid in the areas of health, water, nutrition and agriculture is authorized by United Nations agencies in North Korea.

The severe food shortage in North Korea, coupled with extreme natural disasters and the autocratic tendency of Kim Jong-un’s government to lash out against basic human rights, has resulted in a crisis

However, the idea of ​​development cooperation has never been a simple matter. The allocation, distribution and scale of humanitarian aid, managed by donors from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and emerging partners in the global South, reveal a fragmented topography, mainly represented by strategic interests of a transactional nature. Beyond ideologies, it has also made the world increasingly cohesive and intertwined with connectivity and partnerships offering new models of growth and development. Moreover, the advent of a new world order reflects a dichotomy of cooperation; one, where countries seek to become heavily involved in geostrategic means of seizing leadership; and second, where alternative styles of diplomacy take center stage. The idea of ​​capacity building, in the form of infrastructure or technological exchanges in developing economies, for example, can also be considered through the prism of visibility, obtaining positions of trust and confidence. a new gateway to global leadership.

Seeing that international development cooperation is premised on providing the less prosperous with easy access to global public goods, it inadvertently evokes humanitarian sensitivities and ethical impressions. The case of North Korea is a bit complicated, however. Its engagement as a “hermit kingdom” with the outside world has been unusually restricted due to the dictatorial regime of Kim Jong-un which operates secretly to isolate the country from the eyes of the world. A series of natural disasters in the 1990s, combined with a stagnant economy, resulted in an influx of humanitarian aid. At the same time, the North Korean regime continued to build up a nuclear arsenal by launching underwater missiles and setting up new facilities. The UN has stepped up its sanctions in line with Pyongyang’s nuclear expansion activities.

The idea of ​​capacity building, in the form of infrastructure or technological exchanges in developing economies, for example, can also be viewed through the prism of visibility, obtaining positions of trust and confidence. a new gateway to global leadership.

Nonetheless, strategic narratives and power politics play a vital role in aid delivery tactics. It can most certainly be argued that China is one of its largest suppliers of food aid, although there is a lack of up-to-date statistics with barely a monitoring system in place. By supplying vital food grains, fertilizers, petroleum, cooking charcoal and other textile equipment through sea channels, Pyongyang is heavily dependent on its Asian neighbor. Despite the sanctions and trade restrictions, it has been reported that illicit imports and exports of metal products and other minerals have been carried out by Pyongyang in its attempt to generate income for the survival of its economy. It took a severe blow, however, given the North Korean prime minister’s stern instructions regarding COVID-19 quarantine protocols and lack of contact with foreigners.

In addition, Russia and the United States, as well as several European states, have also provided humanitarian assistance to North Korea through bilateral and multilateral means, such as the UN, the World Food Program (WFP). and other international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). . Understandably, the imposition of sanctions and delays thwarts the delivery of aid when combined with Kim’s inherent and long-standing fear of an influx of information that poses a relevant threat to her survival. diet. This also explains its decision to close the doors of North Korea in 2020, following the outbreak of the pandemic. The country has retreated even further into segregation by being one of the first nations to close its borders to ward off the deadly virus while protecting its state ideology.

Between 2011 and 2019, UN experts observed that the flow of funds from major donors to Pyongyang deteriorated significantly. For example, in 2017, around US $ 35 million was received by North Korea while the UN appeal amounted to an almost huge amount of US $ 120 million. Likewise, according to the UN WFP, food aid from North Korea also declined, from around 35,000 tonnes in 2015 to 14,000 tonnes in 2018. In this context, the strategic commitment But Washington’s cautious $ 1 million in 2017 to undertake flood relief activities in North Korea can be called an important step towards scaling up humanitarian aid.

The ongoing pandemic has strongly underscored the need to build resilient societies with robust health infrastructure, which is only possible with viable and effective partnerships.

Although it is obvious that humanitarian aid must be carried out without any political conditions, it seems that a large part of the funds come from the portfolios of countries which have strategic interests in the North Korean region. Take the example of Beijing, which is constantly increasing its activities in Asia, sees North Korea from the angle of a rivalry of great powers tinged with pragmatism, that is to say the Sino-American strategic competition in the Korean Peninsula. Likewise, despite Washington’s unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang over the years, it is keen to rebuild its diplomatic bridges by offering humanitarian aid.

Yet there is no end to the food security conundrum in North Korea. Speculation is rife that Kim’s refusal to accept humanitarian aid during the pandemic is negatively impacting WFP’s relief work, leading it to suspend its activities in the coming months. It then becomes exceedingly difficult terrain for humanitarian aid agencies to assume their moral responsibilities to protect marginalized sections of the North Korean population. In addition, the ongoing pandemic has strongly underscored the need to build resilient societies with robust health infrastructure, which is only possible with viable and effective partnerships. Undoubtedly, international development cooperation reflects the ebb and flow of donor motivations, in the case of North Korea, it is just a sleeping elephant in the room. It would be interesting to observe how and who wakes him up, especially in a world dominated by the sustainability narrative.


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