ICRC seeks 'more engagement' in North Korea

Peter Maurer of the International Committee of the Red Cross is the first president of the organization to visit the Democratic Republic of North Korea in 21 years. Photo by: Thierry Gassman / ICRC

Although not as dangerous as many hotspots in Africa, North Korea has always been one of the most difficult countries to deliver humanitarian aid.

The reclusive government is wary of expat humanitarians, reluctant to accept help from foreign organizations and unwilling to let international groups monitor how aid is distributed, even at the height of the severe famine the country suffered in the mid-1990s.

But this did not stop the International Committee of the Red Cross from establishing a permanent presence in North Korea over a decade ago, and ICRC now wants to go a step further and scale up their operations inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Peter Maurer became on Monday the first ICRC president to visit the country in 21 years, on a landmark trip to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the armistice that halted the Korean War — and discuss doing more humanitarian work in North Korea.

“Part of the reason [he] is going to the country is to take stock of the programs we have there, and look at ways to develop those programs further with the [local] authorities and the Red Cross,” ICRC Asia-Pacific spokesman Ewan Watson told Devex. “We feel it’s an appropriate enough moment to reaffirm our readiness to [engage in more] humanitarian issues on the Korean Peninsula.”

Family reunions

In collaboration with the local Red Cross ICRC supports several programs in North Korea, like a physical rehabilitation centre in Pyongyang and four provincial hospitals providing orthopaedic surgery.

Maurer is expected to visit all of them, discuss how to expand each project further, and also offer the organisation’s expertise in a very delicate issue: reunions of family members separated by the war with South Korea.

Generally these reunions tend to be huge outbursts of emotion televised live in both countries, but they are rarely followed up and families are kept apart again for many years, if they resume contact at all.

ICRC however believes they can help change this trend.

“We have over 100 years experience in ensuring separated family members are able to remain in contact with each other … across the world … and in some trouble spots where there is trouble and violence, so we understand the sensitivities attached to the issues,” said Watson. “With our particular way of working in a discreet, confidential fashion, we feel we can [give advice to] the Red Crosses of both countries and the authorities [on] setting up a system to allow regular contact between these separated family members.”

These reunions are an important step forward, he said, “but the contact needs to be regular, not one-off.”

Looking for opportunities

So what other programs ICRC want to pursue in North Korea?

Watson refused to speculate on the outcome of the talks between Maurer and the local authorities, but insisted on the organization’s “willingness to increase operations” in a country where ICRC is “certain that there is room for expansion and providing more humanitarian assistance.”

“We will discuss our activities and how to develop them further,” he said, adding that “our relationship with the authorities is very good already, this just represents the next step.”

As for funding, Watson explained that they are good to go for their current project, but if they do get the green light to scale up activities, “we’ll have to revisit those features.”

Maurer will spend three days in North Korea before visiting China and South Korea on this Asian trip.

Additional reporting by Jenny Lei Ravelo

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    As associate editor for breaking news, Carlos Santamaria supervises Devex's Manila-based news team and the creation of our daily newsletter. Carlos joined Devex after a decade working for international wire services Reuters, AP, Xinhua, EFE and Philippine social news network Rappler in Madrid, Beijing, Manila, New York and Bangkok. During that time, he also covered natural disasters on the ground in Myanmar and Japan.