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Driving Change in the DPRK

By Nathan Lee

While the Leap Day deal this past February offered a glimpse of optimism into U.S.-North Korea relations, its failure was an outcome that surprised few. Under the agreement, the U.S. would have provided 240,000 metric tons of food aid to North Korea, and North Korea would have allowed international nuclear inspectors to return. But the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) instead announced on March 16th plans to launch a satellite in April, and this essentially nullified the agreement. Observers noted that a discrepancy between U.S. and DPRK interpretations of what constituted a long-range missile launch was ultimately to blame. But in any event, the DPRK defiantly carried out the launch despite admonishments from the international community not to, the U.S. cancelled the food aid, and any potential for improved relations once again quickly dissipated.

Following the failed rocket launch on April 13, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes made the following announcement:

What this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we’ve seen in the past. Under the previous administration, for instance, there was a substantial amount of assistance provided to North Korea…Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea.

Mr. Rhodes may have been attempting to score political points by depicting a tough Obama administration, but like his predecessor, President Obama has yet to resolve the major issues related to the DPRK such as its nuclear program as well as issues related to proliferation and human rights. In fact, if the failed Leap Day deal has demonstrated anything, it is that North Korea continues to persist as one of the U.S.’s greatest foreign policy challenges.

Similarly, South Korea has also been unable to induce any change from North Korea. President Lee’s hard-line policies have elicited indignation from the DPRK, with tirades ranging from a refusal to ever work with the Lee administration, to promising a “sacred war” on the South. During the terms of both U.S. and South Korean presidents, the DPRK has been undeterred from conducting a litany of provocations, including a nuclear test in 2009, the sinking of the Cheonan, the shelling of Yeongpyong Island, as well this year’s rocket test.

However, despite the inability of the U.S. or ROK governments to achieve nominal progress with the DPRK, incremental change is being made through the important work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and educational institutions operating in North Korea. Organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee are helping farmers increase crop yields and develop sustainable agriculture practices. Stanford University, in conjunction with the Nuclear Threat Initiative and Christian Friends of Korea, has been engaging with North Korean officials on tuberculosis control. The Eugene Bell Foundation is also similarly working to treat multi-drug resistant tuberculosis throughout North Korea. There are other NGOs that continue to play such critical roles in the DPRK. A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to hear about the work that another one of these institutions has been undertaking. Dr. Jerry Nelson, professor emeritus from the University of Missouri, presented on how the University has been working to improve agricultural conditions on communal farms through academic exchanges and by providing expertise to the farms. His presentation underscored two important issues regarding NGO efforts in the DPRK.

First, the food and nutrition situation in rural North Korea may be worse than we think. Reports of famine and malnutrition in North Korea are now well known. Scholars such as Sunyoung Park (Seoul National University) and Daniel Schwekendiek (Sungkyunkwan University) have identified in their research that young North Koreans are shorter than their southern peers due to nutrition deficiencies. But nutrition is in such a dismal state that even the size of bullocks used for tilling fields appears to be decreasing, according to Dr. Nelson. Nutrition of work animals may seem to be an ancillary concern when humans are suffering from starvation, but such a degenerative phenomenon among livestock will perpetuate farmers’ reliance on backbreaking manual labor. In a country where spare tractor parts are lacking and any available fuel prioritized for the military, the strength and size of bullocks is essential for agricultural production. Although European NGOs are working to increase the size of these animals through improved nutrition and selective breeding, progress could take decades.

Second, despite positive trends transpiring in North Korea such as increased access to foreign media, North Korea’s rural population still face enormous challenges in their daily lives with little hope for positive change. Rural farms and their workers are caught in a vicious cycle, driven by the exigency of short-term output requirements while facing scant resources and limited production capabilities. Such conditions leave little room to incorporate relatively feasible medium-term solutions that have been proposed by experts like Dr. Nelson, such as utilizing crop rotations and the limited fertilizer more efficiently. With no opportunity to implement these relatively simple processes, farmers cannot improve their agricultural yields.

While official U.S. or South Korean policy on humanitarian aid remains constrained by North Korean policies on its nuclear program, NGOs and educational institutions have been working to improve the lives of ordinary North Koreans beyond simply giving food aid to North Korea. Although such aid is important in a country where malnourishment is so pervasive, simply continuing to distribute food aid will perpetuate the North Korean government’s dependency on aid and the U.S. and South Korea’s tendency to use it to incentivize policy changes. Instead, the valuable work that the aforementioned organizations are conducting should be supported and permitted to operate even following provocations, because these efforts actually have the potential to improve longer term conditions in North Korea.

South Korea’s Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik recently launched a campaign to solicit voluntary contributions to supplement official funds for unification, referring to these funds as unification “jars.” While this may represent a pragmatic approach towards mitigating the anticipated costs of unification, governmental strategies should also strive to incorporate the successes and lessons learned from these NGOs. Such long-term efforts to improve health and improve agricultural conditions will go a long way in building a basic foundation that will ultimately help mitigate the very costs that the unification fund might seek to address. Moreover, beyond implementing these various initiatives, these organizations are also playing an important role by building relationships and trust in North Korea, and by serving as direct witnesses within the DPRK while the rest of the world remains relatively uncertain of what is really taking place in the country.

The final point on the efforts of NGOs, governments, and international organizations operating in North Korea is that just like DPRK citizens themselves, they remain subject to the policies that the regime dictates. And for all the criticism these NGOs may receive, they are providing relief in North Korea because the state itself is unable to provide such basic services. North Korea’s leadership alone bears full responsibility for the disastrous state of economic and social affairs in the DPRK, and until the regime adopts true comprehensive reforms, the important work that NGOs perform will be hindered needlessly. More importantly, millions of citizens will continue to suffer needlessly.

Nathan Lee is currently a graduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

Photo from Abraham Kim, Korea Economic Institute.

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2 Responses to “Driving Change in the DPRK”

  1. newageman says:

    Nathan’s claim that “North Korea’s leadership alone bears full responsibility for the disastrous state of economic and social affairs in the DPRK” is stretching the facts
    too far.

    It is true that the NK government is mainly responsible for its food shortage.
    However, the article ignores the continuing state of war and the tense military situation on the Korean Peninsula. Because Uncle Sam is refusing to end the Korean War by
    signing a peace treaty with NK, the latter is constantly forced to spend a large
    portion of its government budget for national defense.

    In addition, the food problem is closely
    connected to the shortage in electricity, and the US shares a major blame for
    the problem.

    Under the 1994 Agreed Framework, Uncle Sam promised to build
    two light-water nuclear reactors for electricity in return for NK’s abandonment of
    the two nuclear reactors it was building at the time. But, as we know, Uncle
    Sam did not keep its promise, while NK stopped building its reactors. This
    contributed directly to the shortage of electricity in NK.

  2. Nathan Lee says:


    I agree with you that the drastic hard-line policies adopted during the Bush administration following 9/11 did undermine much of the progress that was made under the Clinton administration. But to look solely at the failure of the Agreed Framework and blame the U.S. for the energy shortage in the DPRK overlooks the broader point that the DPRK regime has actively chosen to allocate its meager resources in ineffective ways. One example that comes to mind is the construction of the April 25 Hotel (which can accommodate 20,000 guests) at a time when famines had killed an estimated 1 million people ( The construction of such a grand facility during a period of dire circumstances not only seems to undermine your argument that North Korea is constantly “forced” to spend on its national defense, but also reflects that there could surely have been a wiser allocation of resources in order to save the 3-5% of the entire country’s population. Furthermore, as Scott Snyder has written (, the DPRK institutionalized emergency humanitarian assistance as a component of its annual “budget” in order to feed its citizens while following the same failed economic policies, making no major changes to its agricultural structure or policies. The failed 2009 currency reforms which crushed market activities ( also reflects the DPRK’s continued pursuit of failed policies, to such an extent that public outcry against the reforms spurred apologies from senior officials like Park Nam-ki and Kim Yong-il in February 2010.

    But going back to the Agreed Framework – could the Bush administration have sought to build greater trust with the DPRK? Could such trust have led to a potentially effective implementation of the Agreed Framework? Perhaps. But to blame the U.S. for an energy shortage in the DPRK mistakenly also assumes the existence of a North Korean regime that would have allocated those resources wisely, when the regime has in fact repeatedly demonstrated that is instead myopically focused on elevating its military over the average citizen. I stand by my assertion that the DPRK regime bears full responsibility for the poor condition of economic and social affairs in its country.


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