February 22, 2020
As an NGO working to improve human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (hereafter DPRK), PSCORE wants to raise the issue of various forms of skill-sharing and humanitarian aid given by various public, private and/or non-profit organizations from European countries and/or the European Union to the North Korean state in order to relieve this human rights crisis.
On one hand, while many countries and organizations try to develop skill-sharing with the DPRK by providing various forms of support such as IT support to improve technological infrastructures in the country, it is important to remind the risk of misuse by the DPRK authorities of those forms of aid to pursue their own political interests.
In the case of IT support, we must remind that the DPRK often uses technological improvement in order to increase their cyberattack capabilities, spying and surveillance skills, as the state goal is to generate more financial capabilities through these illicit activities and strengthen the national surveillance system towards its own citizens. This is also visible when teachers of foreign languages are sent to the DPRK, as the educational system and traveling overseas are most of the time restricted and subordinated to national objectives. Since the 1990s, the state has invested in training cyber experts and hackers in order to attack public and private infrastructures in other countries, especially South Korea and the United States, and learning foreign languages is also a way of obtaining more foreign intelligence.
The North Korean government also attempts at creating a global network in order to improve its cybertechnology capabilities. For example, in April 2019, North Korea started to organize blockchain and cryptocurrency conferences. However, UN sanctions experts have strongly advised against attending these conferences as their report has shown that North Korean cyber-forces had extracted over $2 billion from foreign companies and organizations through cyberattacks and cryptocurrency mining. This money is suspected to be used to finance North Korea’s nuclear program and sustain the regime’s expenses. This is why skill-sharing with North Korea should always be practiced with much caution.
On the other hand, there is a need for humanitarian aid for DPRK citizens as many youths suffer from malnutrition and people lack proper medical treatments in general. However, to whom this aid is addressed and how it is distributed is crucial to think about as a donor or as any organization dealing with the DPRK authorities.
Our interviews with North Korean defectors highlighted for example that when international organizations intervene to plant trees with the goal of improvement North Korean citizens’ daily environment and in an environment-friendly logic in general, these trees will be cut and used and/or sold for heating after the program is finished and the aid organization has left the location. Our report on child labor even showed that these trees may be cut by the students whose schools force them to cut the trees to use it as a heating system for the school. This is the result of the lack of a public heating system, which is something that donors and humanitarian organizations must take into account when dealing with the DPRK.
Humanitarian workers also point out that aid given to public authorities can increase the gap between North Koreans, suspicious of the foreign organizations being allies of the government, and on-field volunteers. They further argue that the distribution of humanitarian aid is biased to the advantage of the army who gets “the best of everything” and is in general affected by the songbun caste system characteristic of North Korea. The North Korean government has made clear that they prioritized investments in urban infrastructure over covering the most basic needs of its citizens, constructing ski resorts to promote tourism and importing luxury goods from China.
While PSCORE does not stand against providing food aid to the DPRK, as the need is still critical for certain parts of the population, it is important to take these testimonies seriously. In The Guardian, a North Korean defector has made a plea for the international community to stop funding food aid to North Korea, as there is a growing divide between the DPRK’s Public Distribution System and the citizens’ market activities through which a significant part of the population actually goes to seek food, instead of the official system. Thus, we should reconsider the way aid and other good-willed skill-sharing programs that aim to increase the North Korean population’s capacities can serve the DPRK state’s political interests.
Not only skill-sharing programs and humanitarian aid given to North Korean authorities can be diverted to serve the most privileged in North Korean society, that is to say the people most useful to the regime, but it is also likely to serve as a way for the regime to earn hard currency to balance the state’s finances and conduct various projects that have nothing to do with relieving the population’s struggles, and can even be threatening to world peace. Because we, as a South Korean NGO, cannot support North Korean citizens on the ground, we are calling for representatives of the EU and European countries, and anyone who wishes to help solve the humanitarian crisis faced by the DPRK, to take these issues into account when planning to provide aid.
 “North Korea Cyber Attacks: A New Asymmetrical Military Strategy” (2018, University of Washington)
 “Exclusive: U.N sanctions experts warn – stay away from North Korea cryptocurrency conference” (2020, Reuters)
 “UN Aid Chief: ‘Evidence of Humanitarian Need,’ Some Progress in N. Korea” (2018, Voice of America)
 “Unending Toil: Child Labor within North Korea” (2018, PSCORE)
 “Sending aid to North Korea often means inadvertently helping Kim Jong Un. But there are still ways to help”, (2018, NBC News)
 “The Problem with Aid to North Korea is Bigger than Diversion” (2018, 38North)
 “Should the world fund food aid to North Korea?” (2014, The Guardian)