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North Korea Increases Restrictions on Foreign Aid Groups

The regime is not refusing all assistance, but it appears to be rolling back what were seen as efforts this year to open up the nation.

September 30, 2004|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — In a disturbing sign that North Korea is further closing its doors to the outside world, the reclusive regime is trying to reduce the presence of foreign aid agencies in the country, diplomats and aid officials said.

Although it is not rejecting humanitarian aid entirely, the North Korean government has told the United Nations that it wants to discontinue an annual fundraising appeal that started in 1995 at the height of a famine that killed an estimated 2 million people. Officials also want to shut down some smaller aid agencies that they view as an intrusive presence.

North Korea appeared to be battening down the hatches and rolling back what were seen earlier this year as encouraging moves to open up the country.

Among other signs of retrenchment, the North recently said it was pulling out of six-party negotiations on its nuclear program. It has ratcheted up its rhetoric about the program, as evidenced by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon's statement Monday at the U.N. General Assembly that plutonium from 8,000 fuel rods had been used to make weapons. Last week, the regime undercut its rapprochement with Japan by threatening to turn its neighbor into a "nuclear sea of fire" in the event of war between the North and the United States.

Dialogue also has been suspended between South Korea and the regime in Pyongyang, the North's capital.

Aside from the diplomatic ramifications, the North's restrictions on aid groups are troubling in that they put at risk hundreds of thousands of people, particularly children, who are suffering from malnutrition and stunted growth.

"I don't know if this will cause another famine, but it is very disturbing because the North still needs food, and its behavior will inevitably reduce donations," said Lee Jong Mo, director of the Korean Sharing Movement, a Seoul-based aid agency. He said South Korean nongovernmental organizations in particular have faced new restrictions trying to work in the North.

"Over the last month or so, NGOs have not been able to go to North Korea," Lee said. "Projects have been put on hold; political dialogue is on hold."

U.N. agencies and diplomats were informed last month that the regime no longer wished to participate in what is called the consolidated appeals process, a fundraising mechanism used by the world body's organizations to coordinate their efforts. The U.N. program, which provides medical and agricultural assistance as well as food, is widely credited with reducing the percentage of North Korean children suffering from stunted growth, from 60% to 40%.

"They no longer feel that they are in an emergency. While they have stated they would still welcome humanitarian assistance, they do not wish to use this framework as it can be interpreted to be associated with an emergency," said a U.N. official who asked not to be named. "From our side, we don't necessarily agree. We believe that humanitarian assistance is still needed. We are in continuing dialogue in Pyongyang over this."

Diplomats familiar with the dispute say North Korea resents the monitoring requirements imposed by the United Nations and the presence of a small but growing expatriate community in Pyongyang that has accompanied the assistance. Officials in the North also are said to be angry that aid for rebuilding the country has been delayed because of the prolonged standoff over the nuclear weapons issue.

The North Koreans' "behavior is difficult to understand, but you have to remember that they are proud people," said a South Korean official who asked not to be quoted by name.

From the outset, the regime has been ambivalent about humanitarian aid, which runs counter to the ruling ideology that emphasizes self-reliance. Foreigners traipsing around the country are considered a threat to Kim Jong Il's rule, and their activities already have been greatly restricted. U.N. and other agencies have labored painstakingly over nearly a decade to gain access to the neediest North Koreans.

"The way I understand it is that the North Koreans feel their people are being exposed to too many foreigners," said Koh Yu Hwan, a specialist on the North at Seoul's Dongkuk University. "They want to reinstate control over internal matters."

Among North Korea analysts, there is some discussion about whether Kim might be reversing course after dipping into market reforms. Earlier this year, North Korea looked to be on the verge of normalizing relations with Japan, and its capital was seeing an increase in foreign visitors, diplomats, investors and traders.

Phillip Saunders, an Asia specialist at the National Defense University in Washington, said he believed that North Korea might be experiencing what came to be known during the reform process in neighboring China as alternate cycles of fang (loosening) and shou (tightening).

"I wouldn't be surprised that we are seeing a similar dynamic to what we saw in China in which a period of opening is inevitably followed by a clamping-down," Saunders said.

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