Notes from the Field

From Charity to Partnership: South Korean NGO Engagement with North Korea

October 7, 2009

While delivering needed assistance to people in the North is the first-order objective of South Korean NGOs, closely related is the objective of contributing to reconciliation between South and North. NGOs could contribute to reconciliation by reducing misunderstanding, deepening trust, and providing alternative channels for communication that can operate when governmental channels are constrained.

Civil society as usually understood – a relatively independent, non-governmental sphere for citizen action – is entirely lacking in North Korea. Thus, there are no non-governmental counterparts with which the South Korean NGOs can work and seek to influence. NGOs have contact potentially at two levels. The primary counterpart for most NGOs is a political arm of the Korean Workers’ Party, charged and trusted with the delicate task of managing the relationship with non-government groups in the South with the aim of securing maximum aid while allowing minimum contact with ordinary North Korean citizens. North Korean propaganda has consistently painted the South as an economically divided and struggling society hopelessly polluted by U.S. imperialism and globalization, and harboring elements hostile to the North. They generally want to prevent the general population from knowing the source of aid from the South and, even more, they manage visits to minimize contact between visitors from the South and ordinary people.

The relationship is an asymmetrical one. From the South, many NGOs with different leadership and agenda approach the North, but almost all of them are handled by a single authority on that side. In this way, North Korea is able to know everything about the various NGOs and to use this information to its advantage. It controls access to operational units in the North and also plays on the spirit of competition among the South Korean NGOs to press for the most favorable assistance terms. Ultimately the North Korean counterpart can open or close the door according to its satisfaction with each NGO’s programs or behavior. Developing and maintaining a good working relationship at this level is essential for the NGOs and contributes to the creation of multiple links between the South and the elite circles in the North.

The second level of NGO contact is at the project sites. When visiting children’s homes, hospitals, or collective farms, NGO representatives can interact with those in charge and perhaps with some of the staff. We can assume that many others at the local level are aware of the South Korean visitors and may observe them at the project sites. The NGOs have sought to increase the quantity and quality of contact at this level in order to gain a clearer understanding of conditions and to communicate their goodwill directly to “ordinary” North Koreans.

How can we gauge the degree to which NGO engagement has succeeded in reducing misunderstanding and building trust at these two contact levels in the North? NGO leaders claim that they have indeed succeeded to some extent, and they point to a number of indicators. To read more from Dr. Reed or to purchase the book, visit SUNY Press.

A new book Engagement with North Korea: A Viable Alternative just released by SUNY Press, features a chapter written by The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Seoul, Edward Reed. Above is an excerpt from Dr. Reed’s chapter.

View all posts by Edward Reed

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