The leaders of North and South Korea have agreed to pursue peace after a period of heightened tension on the Korean peninsula.
An aid worker on how sanctions are affecting North Koreans
Over the past year, Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests have prompted the United Nations to impose tougher economic sanctions on the isolated nation.
The sanctions have seen North Korea’s trade volume drop by 90% since mid-2017, while its economy will shrink by 2% to 3.5% this year if the penalties continue, according to Anwita Basu, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Citing Chinese data, the Financial Times reports that China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, has even gone beyond the sanctions imposed by the UN by virtually halting exports of petroleum, coal and other key materials.
The impact of the sanctions on the lives of ordinary North Koreans remains largely unknown.
Inkstone asks Katharina Zellweger, a veteran aid worker in North Korea and a visiting scholar at Stanford University, to share her views.
You’re originally from Switzerland. How did you get involved in humanitarian work in North Korea?
I have always wanted to work with people at the fringe, who are overlooked. In Switzerland, I was a probation officer. In 1978, the Catholic aid agency Caritas sent me to Hong Kong.
Through my Caritas-Hong Kong connections in China I got to know North Koreans. I had a certain amount of curiosity, because I had not been to North Korea and I knew very little about it. When I was invited to visit, I said I would be delighted to go, but was there anything to do for Caritas?
And that’s how it happened. I have been involved in humanitarian work in North Korea since 1995. In 2015, I founded my own non-governmental organization, KorAid. Now I usually visit North Korea about three times a year. We support cataract operations and build greenhouses at childcare institutions – so that the children can have better nutrition. We also train parents and caregivers in helping children with intellectual disabilities.
Last year, new sanctions were imposed on Pyongyang’s coal, mineral and seafood exports as well as its oil imports. How are they affecting the lives of ordinary North Koreans?
The sanctions are gradually having an impact, and the brunt is primarily felt by ordinary people, especially the most vulnerable: the disabled, the sick and the elderly as well as women and children.
The level of humanitarian aid has decreased. Donors are reluctant to support North Korea, and moreover there is no banking channel anymore. Organizations working in the agricultural sector have difficulties in importing machinery such as tractors, water pumps and spare parts. Aid agencies have also cut supplies of essential drugs because of a lack of funding.
In general, life goes on. People are trying to make ends meet. North Korea now depends much more on its domestic economy. There is less trade with China. Poor people don’t have the money to buy things from China anyway. Regarding the sanctions, you cannot take a lot from people who have only very little.
How would the humanitarian situation be different if the country reaches a deal with South Korea and the US?
I would be happy if the relationship between the South and the North improves. Peace will not happen overnight, but if South Korea were to provide humanitarian aid again, of course that would be helping the people in need.
For example, South Korea could pick up the pieces of the tuberculosis treatment program which The Global Fund is no longer supporting, or provide essential drugs to hospitals in the different provinces. Many efforts of South Korean NGOs have stopped because of the political situation. I was in South Korea a month ago, and I got the impression that they would be very willing to re-start programs.
What is the biggest myth about North Korea you have noticed in the West?
What strikes me is that the talk is always on political matters, on nuclear or missile programs, or on human rights issues or hunger. The 24 million ordinary North Korean people are forgotten.
How is life in North Korea different from when you first got there?
I call it the five Ms.
Markets now exist all across the country and money plays a much bigger role in the daily lives of ordinary people.
Many people have mobile phones - they phone, text and take photos. Internal communication has improved a lot; they can talk with their relatives living in a different part of the country. Motorcars have also increased. And in Pyongyang, there is a middle class developing.
There is also another change, M number six: and that is that mindsets are changing, especially among the young generation who has grown up during or after the famine. They know that the government is no longer providing food, clothing, daily necessities and so on. So they know they have to make ends meet, and therefore there is a certain entrepreneurial spirit developing.
I would say the majority of the changes are positive, but I am concerned that if the sanctions go on for too long, we will move backwards.
How much awareness do you think North Koreans have about the talks with the South?
People in Pyongyang have more access to information. They know about the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and the South Korean pop concerts in the capital. They know that high-level South Korean officials visited Pyongyang recently and that the North and the South are meeting.
It’s different in the countryside, where ordinary people struggle to get by. My North Korean colleagues usually say: “we don’t have time to think about politics: we have to work hard, earn money to buy food, to get clothes for our children – for us, that’s priority number one.”