North Korea: Should aid workers leave?

Security personnel facing North Korea from the southern side of the the Joint Security Area in the Korean demilitarized zone. Photo by: Bryan Dorrough / CC BY

North Korea’s appeal for foreign aid workers and diplomats to evacuate is part of Pyongyang’s usual scheme to mount pressure on its enemies, but expats will leave the country if the rhetoric continues to escalate.

Two former residents of the so-called Hermit Kingdom told Devex that the warnings are nothing new, but that doesn’t mean embassies and aid organizations should not take them seriously as any other threat against the security of their staff.

If most foreigners are indeed evacuated, that will suspend dozens of much-needed aid projects, in particular food and nutritional aid by the World Food Program.

So far neither the embassies nor the aid groups and U.N. agencies have heeded the call for their expat staff to leave the country.

Pressure on international community

No matter how many times North Korea insists it is on the verge of nuclear war with the South and the United States, foreigners who had the unique experience of living in Pyongyang say the threats are just part of the North’s strategy to mount pressure on the international community for it to lift sanctions and give more aid.

“The ‘recommendation’ to evacuate staff is therefore, in all probability, part of the mounting pressure North Korea places on the international community to try to obtain a negotiated solution to their problems,” said Christian Lemaire, who coordinated the U.N. Development Program in Pyongyang in the late 1990s and a frequent visitor to the country.

Former aid worker Alex Bor agreed and added that “similar intimidations have been broadcasted in the past” and suggested the country’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, is probably being influenced by warmongering generals.

“The military is powerful and the leaders realize that half the population would be without work once there is no longer any need for such huge armed forces,” said Bor, who worked on several water sanitation projects in the country in 2004-2005 and 2007-2010. “There needs to be justification for maintaining such a strong military society and weapons development. And that justification would not be there in a peaceful relationship with their neighbor or the outside world.”

Should expats heed call to leave?

Asked if embassy and aid staff and their families should evacuate now, Lamaire said that now there is no “real risk of conflict” that should warrant such a decision, although diplomats should be prepared for any contingency.

“If I were there, I would not take any drastic action at this time short of perhaps postponing return to Pyongyang of family members abroad as a simple precautionary measure,” he commented.

Lamaire stressed that the decision to evacuate should always be based on the concerned embassy or aid group’s actual assessment of the security situation, rather than the recommendation of the host country.

Bor was less assertive and said foreigners could start leaving if the threats don’t stop.

“What I would expect for the coming days or weeks if the rhetoric continues at this level, is that the NGOs and aid organizations will indeed evacuate their personnel as they cannot ignore any security threats on their staff,” he explained.

Aid projects will be affected by evacuation

Regarding how a possible evacuation of foreigners could affect aid programs now operating in the country, Lamaire admitted that some — especially humanitarian operations — would have to be shut down, but probably not for long.

“Some projects would probably be put on hold but it is unlikely that aid programs … would be disrupted for a significant period of time,” he said. “In case of conflict, emergency programs would be set up to deal with the new situation.”

Bor stressed that North Koreans are “extremely hardworkers” but they are more used to preparing for war than development work, something that could change in the future if they set their mind to it.

“If you can launch a satellite into orbit, you can also construct family latrines. It is a matter of priorities and of course a communication satellite is more prestigious than a water system,” he said.

Bor added that if expats are evacuated, most if not all nongovernmental organizations and aid groups will immediately suspend their operations.

“If [they] had wanted the North Koreans to run the programs, they could have done so a long time ago, just by sending the cash millions. If an organization wants to make sure their dollars end up exactly at the place they want it to go, skilled expatriate staff needs to be there, no doubt about it,” he concluded.

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    Carlos Santamaria

    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.