In July 2012 I had to visit the United States, Tucson, Arizona, where there was a somewhat unusual Korea history conference. What was it dedicated to? In a few words - it was an exchange of views, information, and recommendations of law-abiding Americans about how to do business with the DPRK under severe sanctions and restrictions imposed by the U.S. government. All speakers proceeded from the constant of the need to comply with the U.S. relevant legislative acts, the violation of which significantly threatens with punishment. The conference was attended by representatives of the U.S. State Department and a number of the leading brain trusts of Washington, and this is despite the statement by representatives of the authorities that “the group of five NGOs” “does not solve anything and is unable to have any influence on the U.S. policy.”
And before I have been to major international forums devoted to the study of various aspects of the current situation on the Korean Peninsula. The experts’ views converge: relations between Washington and Pyongyang are permanently difficult and intense; imperatives for strengthening sanctions against Pyongyang, with the ultimate goal of “regime change” in North Korea, dominate the U.S. politics.
The White House’s refusal of the long-expected and encouraging agreement with the DPRK of February 29, 2012 (Leap Day), and of the promise made thereunder to provide food assistance - in response to a failed satellite launch (according to Pyongyang, and according to Washington - missile testing) that took place on 13 April 2012, confirmed the belief of experts. You can’t fail to notice here that the GRS that is cooperating at the North Korean direction with four other U.S. NGOs (Christian Friends of Korea (CFK); Mercy Corps; Samaritan’s Purse; World Vision) has made then a joint statement expressing deep disappointment at the decision of the U.S. government to abandon the commitment to provide food assistance to North Korea in the amount of 240 thousand tons, stressing the need to share political goals and objectives of the humanitarian mission.
It should be noted that the conference in Tucson has added many new colors to the old palette. It brought together representatives of a number of U.S. non-governmental organizations that provide humanitarian assistance to the DPRK on continuing basis. There is a doubt among Koreanists as to what extent this humanitarian aid is disinterested, as to whether it pursues the ends of another “Trojan horse” in respect of the recipient?
Without discussing, I want to mention just one fact insinuating much: North Koreans known for their hypervigilance and suspiciousness of all foreign things, especially coming from the hostile U.S. have been working with confidence with their American “breadwinners” for many years.
In Tucson I met, for example, Robert Springs, head of the Global Resources Services. He is a kind of champion, because he has managed to be to North Korea 65 times for the last 15 years (since the beginning of mutual contacts). Among the other symposium participants there were people who visited North Korea from 10 to 25 times. They usually visited remote areas of the country (for example, Yanggakdo, Chagang, North Hamgyong Provinces). So, in Tucson, I met with people having a good understanding of the Korean question, and it was a little unexpected, of great interest.
According to official information by the GRS, it works not only in Korea but also in other developing countries. As regards North Korea, since 1997, the organization has focused its activities on four main areas. This is the implementation of the Ensuring Access to Safe Drinking Water Program resulting in 300 thousand people to have gained access to new drinking water sources that was opened with the help of modern technology. The Food Security Program has provided daily food assistance to 250,000 people in South Hwanghae, North Hwanghae, North Hamgyong Provinces. In association with four other U.S. NGOs, 100,000 tons of food were distributed in the provinces of North Phennan and Changando that covered almost one million recipients. The Global Health Program is functioning - in various provinces of the DPRK 100 doctors were trained in laparoscopic surgery. Medical equipment was also delivered to the amount of $500 thousand, allowing to deliver medical care to half a million patients every year.
The Education Program yields results too. 10 professors in English are annually trained; work in the field of cultural exchanges is underway.
In April of this year, GRS ensured a visit to North Korea of a largest group of American participants of the Korean War. Korea was also visited by the male-voice choir and orchestra from Atlanta - Sons of Jubal. In response, the North Korean Philharmonic Orchestra is going to a visit the U.S.A, but the U.S. State Department is trying to impede such an active development of contacts and so far denies a visa to 170 musicians of the Korean orchestra.
It has to be said that all the conference attendees saw real benefits and prospects for economic cooperation with the DPRK, though no one had any illusions about the comfortability of doing business in the DPRK market. Thus, the forum’s participants businesslike and quietly exchanged experiences as to how to solve the double challenge. First, it is necessary to find legal loopholes in the law of their own country, especially concerning how to overcome restrictions in cooperation with the DPRK. Adepts of the U.S. administration’s sanctions vis-a-vis Pyongyang tried to go the limit to “put the kibosh” on the latter, hoping for a speedy collapse. But as the symposium has shown, the legal possibilities of US-North Korean economic cooperation still exist.
It was also discussed how to minimize the risks of working on the North Korean accounting for its non-transparency, corruption factors, peculiarity of local bureaucracy seeking to infringe and exclude a foreign partner by non-economic methods.
Nevertheless, in the conferees’ reports the understanding of attractive and promising work with North Korea clearly prevailed. A special mention was made of flexibility and creativity of many North Korean counterparts.
For example, in Moscow a North Korean restaurant “Korio” has enjoyed wide popularity for several years; in Amsterdam, a similar restaurant “Pyongyang” has been recently open and at once became a magnet of attraction.
Netherlands invested in the DPRK funds for the construction of high-tech greenhouses for growing vegetables, which has been successfully in operation; the same supplied the monitors made by the Phillips Company, built revolving doors at entrance to many hotels. The North Koreans are shown thereby new technologies.
Certainly one of the most attractive areas of imports from the DPRK is its natural resources. The Netherlands, thanks to its activity, has already imported $6 billion’s worth of North Korean natural resources, including gold, copper, zinc, nickel, coal, etc.
A curious question arises: how do businessmen in Europe and Korea find each other under conditions of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, the U.S.A., Japan, the RoK? The ways are different, but most often, they are found in China. Yes, China, as is known, has become not only an economic partner of the DPRK (bilateral trade alone has reached $6 billion). China is Pyongyang’s main economic window to the outside world, and it shocks South Korean businessmen who themselves wouldn’t mind to show all they can do in the north of the peninsula, against all the odds.
As it turned out at the symposium, the products made by North Korean companies but “registered” in China, do not fall under international sanctions. There appeared to be a lot of such companies with the active participation of North Koreans not only in the border area of China, but also in the Middle East and Mongolia. For example, in the UK alone, 500 shops operate selling cashmere sweaters produced at plants in Mongolia, where North Korean labor is widely used. And in Dubai 500 North Korean builders are successfully employed.
Naturally, the most striking example of the effectiveness of cooperation with North Korea is an industrial area in Quezon City, where South Korean firms continue profitable production, despite the extremely tense political and military situation between North and South. Its summands, among other things, are the lowest wages of 55,000 North Korean workers ($100 per month), which is significantly less compared to the closest competitors (China, Vietnam, Guatemala). At the same time it is important to note the adequate level of training, the highest standards of product quality delivered by North Korean workers.
At the conference, American and European experts mentioned the attractiveness of the North Koreans as workers not only in the traditional light (e.g., sewing) industry, but also in the modern high technologies - the production of certain types of sophisticated medical equipment, computer games, and security systems, undeniable achievements in the creation of modern animation programs and cartoons (here, they attract leading French and Italian firms and even the Walter Disney Company in Hollywood).
The conferees’ opinion was definite: although it is difficult to do business with North Korea, however it is possible and profitable. For example, the famous Egyptian Orascom Company, having undertaken a commitment to complete the 105-storey hotel in Pyongyang, was given complete control over the mobile market in the DPRK and has attracted about 1 million customers.
Of course, the important fact heard at the conference was a well-grounded protest by the leaders of the above NGOs against the campaign recently deployed in the U.S. by ill-wishers of Pyongyang, the essence of which is compromise. They say the American NGOs operating in North Korea allegedly deliberately inflate the numbers of people actually suffering from malnutrition, in order to make money out of the humanitarian aid. Second, American food that is distributed through NGOs, does not reach the really hungry people in provinces, but, supposedly, gets, first of all, to the army, and some strata of the DPRK state elite.
Based on a strong information campaign, the U.S. government has decided to reduce the amount of humanitarian aid to North Korea. At a conference in Tucson, with the facts in hand, the leaders of the group of five NGOs have shown these charges do not reflect the reality. It was reported that the process of food transfer to the most vulnerable populations, as well as to kindergartens, schools, hospitals, etc. is closely monitored by the permanent staff of the group of five. But as to the “humanitarian” rice to have allegedly appeared on North Korean markets, it is a false fact too, because this rice did not come from the U.S. sources.
Despite attempts by some media to discredit its work, the whole group of five non-governmental organizations has confirmed its commitment to continue its humanitarian mission in North Korea.