Mirim Solar WASH Mission

A brief note to let everyone know that 3 Rotarians will be heading in on 11 February 2017 to kickoff with first tranche of funding for the Mirim Solar WASH project.

  • Rtn. Randal Eastman, Past Special Representative to China 2013-16, Member of Fresh Start Shanghai Rotary Club
  • Rtn. Dr. Nikola Urosevic, PP, Member of Rotary Club of Shanghai
  • Rtn. Gordon Card, President of the Rotary Club of Sydney, Nova Scotia




Project Completed - Football Play it Forward

Successful Mission to follow up our Footballs.

Rotarians Randal and NIkola along with Dr. Chen Qun and Shen Keqiao say farewell to the students and football players at Mirim School.

Rotarians Randal and NIkola along with Dr. Chen Qun and Shen Keqiao say farewell to the students and football players at Mirim School.

From 11 to 18 August we led a successful mission to Pyongyang with the number one purpose of following up our 200 footballs and uniforms donated on behalf of Mac Millar (www.MacMillar.org) for his Football Play it Forward project.

Mirim School for Orphans

First stop for this project was to visit the Mirim School for Orphans in Pyongyang where we watched a match between the two teams, accompanied by live music by the school band and enthusiastic cheers by students at both ends of the soccer pitch.

We took the opportunity while onsite to scout the school for additional project opportunities including placement of an improved cookstove in the school kitchen, placement of a library, installation of solar water heaters, and collaboration with their greenhouses for the Food Plant Solutions Rotarian Action Group.

In the afternoon after visiting a ShelterBox distribution site in Rakrang district of Pyongyang we visited the Rakrang Juvenile Sports School where we watched the first half of a match and had a nice photo session where he handed out Rotary club banners of our project sponsors.

There were many other elements that we combined into this mission - which we will write about separately. You can see a full set of photos on our flickr site here:


Footballs now on their way to Pyongyang

Finally we can announce that our donation of 200 footballs, uniforms and pumps are packed up and ready to depart Beijing for Pyongyang.

This is probably proof that it requires as much effort to implement a small project as it does a large one, but the nature of this project is about testing the waters and relationship building, so if all proceeds according to plan I expect that we will emerge from our August follow up visit with a strong desire to build on it.

Now on the planning of the site visit.



North Korea hit by the worst drought in a century

Country expected to face famine if unusually dry weather continues as 30 percent of its rice paddies dry up.

17 Jun 2015 19:26 GMT | Environment, Asia Pacific, North Korea

North Korea has said it has been hit by its worst drought in a century, resulting in extensive damage to agriculture during its main planting season.

The official Korean Central News Agency said on Wednesday that the drought has caused about 30 percent of its rice paddies to dry up. Young rice plants normally need to be partially submerged in water during the early summer.

"Recently in our country, there has been a severe drought with sudden extremely high temperatures and nearly no rain," Ri Yong Nam, a senior North Korean weather official, told the AP news agency on Wednesday. "Now the drought is causing a water shortage and great damage to agriculture, and we foresee this drought will continue for a while."

He said temperatures in May were 5-7C higher than normal.

Both North and South Koreas have had unusually dry weather this year.

South Korea's Unification Ministry said precipitation in North Korea was abnormally low in May, and food production could decline significantly if the shortage continues. However, a ministry official said he could not confirm North Korea's claim that it was experiencing its worst drought in a century.

Jane Howard, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program in Rome, said North Korea has been experiencing water shortages since late last year because of low rain and snowfall. "The lack of water now could seriously affect the main crop season later this year," she said.

The main crop season is planted in June-July and normally accounts for 90 percent of total food production, she said in an email.

"We are very concerned that if there is poor crop production this year, there will be a significant increase in malnutrition especially among children," she said.

KCNA said South Hwanghae province was one of North Korea's worst-hit areas.

Farmers at Gangan Cooperative Farm in the province said they have been unable to grow rice seedlings.

"This is the first drought damage in my 20 years of farming experience," Sin Jong Choi, head of a work team at the farm, told AP. He said the seedlings dried out, so farmers plowed the fields again and planted corn instead.

But even the corn plants "are completely burned to death," said Bae Tae Il, the farm's chief engineer. "We are launching all-out efforts to overcome the drought damage."

In Pyongyang, the capital, the water level of the Taedong River was very low on Wednesday.

Mac Millar inspects the Balls

Mac Millar came to town in April to inspect the soccer balls purchased for the DPRK with funds advanced by Rotary Shanghai President Frank Yih's private foundation, Huaqiao Foundation.

Mac was happy with quality and had a few minutes free from his preparations for a TEDx talk at hte Western International School Shanghai.


Watch Mac's TEDx talk here:

Farewell Brian

We are very sad to learn of the passing of a good friend – who was a facilitator of some of our recent projects in the DPRK and himself was a friend to the DPR Koreans – after a decades long battle with cancer.

Brian Watling from Nova Scotia, Canada, was a "well seasoned" new energy pioneer who spent recent years shuttling between Canada and the PRC where he was assisting Green Power Labs to launch its solar energy technologies into the Chinese market.

Here are some images of Brian's visit to the Pyongsong Orphanage where he helped to fix some hiccups with the installation of a solar water heater donated by Rotaracters from Chicago, USA.

RIP Brian. We will all miss you.

Results of the 3 Asian Cup Games

As you will have read, Mac Millar met with the DPRK team when they visited Australia to participate in the Asian Cup.

Unfortunately their 3 matches did not turn out as well as they had hoped. Here are snap shots from each.

Match 1 - DPRK vs Uzbekistan (0-1)

Match 2 - DPRK vs. Saudi Arabia (1-4)

Match 3 - DPRK vs PR China (1-2)

Private Purchases of Solar PV in the DPRK

Private Purchases of Solar Photovoltaic Panels in the DPRK: Signs of Green Growth on the Way?

NAPSNet Policy Forum

By David Von Hippel and Peter Hayes

13 January, 2015

This paper was originally published with support from the Hanyang University’s Energy, Governance and Security (EGS)  Center, available in Global Energy Monitor Vol. 2, No.9.


In the following Policy Forum, David von Hippel and Peter Hayes examine the growth of solar panel purchases in North Korea. They write, “The DPRK’s growing markets for solar PV systems suggest two things. First, it suggests that that there is likely a high level of suppressed demand for electricity in the in both rural and urban areas. Second, the evident willingness on the part of DPRK citizens to pay high costs per unit of electricity delivered by use of PV/battery systems reflects the very high “opportunity cost” of foregoing the use of electricity when it is needed.”

David von Hippel is a Nautilus Institute Senior Associate working on energy and environmental issues in Asia, as well as on analysis of the DPRK energy sector.

Peter Hayes is Honorary Professor, Center for International Security Studies, Sydney University, Australia and Director, Nautilus Institute in Berkeley, California.


A combination of lack of investment due to international economic sanctions and limited foreign exchange earnings, coupled with multiple chronic and ongoing problems with energy supply infrastructure, have left per-capita electricity consumption in the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) far below that of its Southern neighbor. On average, the DPRK consumes an estimated 420 kWh (kilowatt-hours) of grid electricity per capita annually, while the Republic of Korea (ROK) consumes 9300 kWh per capita/year, more than 20 times as much.[1]Faced with frequent electricity blackouts and brownouts, average DPRK residents, as well as members of a growing middle class, elite families, and wealthier traders, are turning to Chinese-made solar photovoltaic (PV) systems to power entertainment electronics, lights, and other devices, the Daily NK reports.[2] Although it is unclear how widespread the adoption of PVs by North Koreans is at this time, the interest in this technology in the DPRK underscores the value that North Koreans place on the services provided by electricity. In addition, however, the uptake of renewable energy systems by the DPRK together with the success of the aggressive program of renewable energy adoption in Germany, suggests that the DPRK officials and members of the international community who will be involved in the eventual rebuilding of the DPRK’s energy system might do well to plan to “leapfrog” the fossil-based energy system used in the ROK, and fully implement the concept of “low carbon green growth”—nominally adopted in the ROK in 2008—with a focus on renewable energy.

DPRK citizens in many cities are reportedly spending the equivalent of several months of household income to buy solar PV systems to power small electronics (the most common being combination DVD/CD/media players with 9 inch screens) as well as, probably, some light-emitting diode (LED) lighting and other small electric devices. The most common system purchased includes a PV panel with a rated capacity of 30 Watts (W), and a sealed lead-acid automotive-type battery with a capacity of 28 Amp-hours. Wealthier households purchase larger panels and batteries, and larger electronic devices. Households purchase the systems because electricity supplies from the DPRK central grid are in many places unreliable at best, and at worst, rarely available. Although these systems provide households with consistent access to entertainment and (probably) some lighting and other services, and do so without pollutant emissions, the cost of providing electricity via the solar PV systems is relatively high. The reason for this is not so much the cost of the PV panel in the DPRK—PV costs have been declining rapidly for years, and the in-DPRK retail cost quoted by Daily NK, about $1.30 on a per-Watt-capacity basis, is similar to the high end of current bulk pricing for 30 W PV panel kits as quoted in Alibaba (the dominant Chinese internet market). Taking just the cost of the panel into account, and assuming a lifetime of 20 years, the cost per kWh of delivered electricity in the system comes to about $0.22 per kWh.[3] The system cost becomes much more expensive, however, when the cost of batteries is included. The reason here is that the batteries used in the system, 12-volt lead-acid batteries of the type used in small vehicles (for example, electric scooters), have a finite lifetime (perhaps 5 or 6 years) even under the best of circumstances, but when continuously discharged to a low level, as they likely would be when used as North Korean households are likely to use them, the battery lifetime could be much shorter, even though some of the batteries sold with PV systems may be nominally designed for deep-cycle use. As a result, the batteries needed to accompany PV panels must be replaced many times over the life of the panels. Factoring in battery lifetimes of 5 years (a best case scenario), the cost of usable energy from the PV/battery systems rises to $0.49 per kWh. If the batteries last only an average of 2 years, the cost per unit of energy rises to $0.78 per kWh. By way of comparison, the residential retail price of electricity in the ROK was about $0.13 (130 ROK Won) per kWh as of July 2014.[4]

The actual cost of electricity from PV systems underscores the high value that DPRK households place on access to even small amounts of electricity, and probably even significantly understates it. Based on UN Comtrade (customs trade statistics) data, the DPRK imported from China on the order of 6 million flashlights and 60 million small batteries (likely for electronics) in each of 2012 and 2013 alone. The effective cost of electricity from these small batteries is on the order of $20 per kWh. Although the categories used for Comtrade statistics make it difficult to determine for certain, recorded trades (as opposed to trades in goods that do not appear on the Customs ledgers) in PV systems could be on the order of several (perhaps 3 to 5) megawatts annually, meaning that perhaps 100,000 or more DPRK households have adopted them to date.

In a way, and perhaps not entirely intentionally, the DPRK seems to be approaching the same renewable energy path that German policies have been emphasizing for some years. A recent article in Foreign Policy describes the trend, under a policy called Energiewende, in which the orchestrated use of mostly local renewable energy sources has been replacing power from central stations: [5] “In just a dozen years, industrial-powerhouse Germany has replaced around 31 percent of its nuclear and fossil fuel generated electricity with green power, produced overwhelmingly from moderately sized onshore wind, solar PV, hydro, and bio-energy installations – an achievement no one predicted when the Energiewende commenced in 2000.” One of the features of the German approach has been an emphasis on increasing the use of renewable energy starting at the local and regional levels, a “citizen-led energy boom” in which local projects increasingly use smart grids to manage local demand and supply and, increasingly, to trade power with other cities and regions.  Such an approach, if not necessarily consistent with how the DPRK government has typically managed its energy sector, is certainly consistent with both the North Korean philosophy of juche, or self-reliance, as well as with DPRK government exhortations, in recent years, to local areas to provide their own energy sources to augment central supplies. Consistent with this direction is the recent announcement of the organization of a “natural energy institute” in Pyongyang “with various rooms for researches into wind energy, geotherm, solar heat and other natural energies, e-library, laboratories, a pilot plant, etc.”[6]  Setting up such an institute was actually a topic that Nautilus Institute talked about with DPRK counterparts as early as 2000. The DPRK government’s longstanding interest in renewable energy, coupled with the widespread grassroots adoption of solar PV and other renewable technologies, mean that cooperation in renewable energy systems will likely serve as an attractive (to both sides) and helpful approach to engagement between the DPRK and the international community.

The DPRK’s growing markets for solar PV systems suggest two things. First, it suggests that that there is likely a high level of suppressed demand for electricity in the in both rural and urban areas. Second, the evident willingness on the part of DPRK citizens to pay high costs per unit of electricity delivered by use of PV/battery systems reflects the very high “opportunity cost” of foregoing the use of electricity when it is needed.

In South Korea, on the other hand, in contrast with German policies, and also in contrast, for example, to the strong growth in installation of solar power in Japan (driven in part by the post-Fukushima anxiety about reliance on nuclear power, as well as by the high prices of electricity in Japan and Japanese Feed-in Tariff policies), the ROK government’s commitment to promoting the domestic use of solar PV power appears to have waned.[7] In the DPRK, the need to rehabilitate virtually the entire power sector may, paradoxically, coupled with the demonstrated interest by individual DPRK citizens in harvesting the benefits of renewable energy (and thereby receiving at least some of the energy services they have been missing), make it easier, not harder, for the DPRK to follow the German model of growth of local and even household renewable energy systems into local, then regional, then national renewables-dominated smart grids.  Achieving such a future rapidly will of course require investment, as well as technical and other assistance, from outside the DPRK, assistance that can only come via cooperation and engagement with the international community. It is even possible that a DPRK focused on using renewables for green growth will help to spur the ROK to take more meaningful steps in the same direction, thus moving South Korea more rapidly toward the goals implied by its government’s stated, as of 2008, intent to undertake a green energy path.


[1] Both per-capita figures include electricity consumed in all sectors of the economies.  DPRK figure are derived from Nautilus DPRK energy analysis; see, for example, David von Hippel, and Peter Hayes (2012), Foundations of Energy Security for the DPRK: 1990-2009 Energy Balances, Engagement Options, and Future Paths for Energy and Economic Redevelopment, dated 18 December 2012, and  available as http://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/foundations-of-energy-security-for-the-dprk-1990-2009-energy-balances-engagement-options-and-future-paths-for-energy-and-economic-redevelopment/; and David F. von Hippel and Peter Hayes, An Updated Summary of Energy Supply and Demand in The Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea (DPRK), published as Hanyang University Center for Energy Governance and Security Working Paper 2014-2, and available fromhttp://www.egskorea.org/sub/sub2_2.asp  and as http://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/an-updated-summary-of-energy-supply-and-demand-in-the-democratic-peoples-republic-of-korea-dprk/.  ROK figure is for 2012, and is derived from data in Korea Energy Economics Institute (2013), Yearbook of Energy Statistics, 2013, available as http://www.keei.re.kr/keei/download/YES2013.pdf.

[2] Seol Song Ah (2014), “Solar Panels Shine New Light on NK”, Daily NK, dated 2014-10-24, and available ashttp://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk01500&num=12465/.

[3] Calculated using a real (not including inflation) discount rate of 15%/year, which is probably appropriate, if not low, for household consumers, an assumed output of 1200 W-hours per W of PV capacity, and an average charge/discharge efficiency of 80 percent for the PV/battery system.

[4] Korea Energy Economics Institute (2014), Monthly Energy Statistics, Volume 30-10 (October, 2014), available ashttp://www.keei.re.kr/keei/download/MES1410.pdf.

[5] Paul Hockenos (2014), Germany’s Revolution in Small Batch, Artisanal Energy”, Foreign Policy.com, dated October 31, 2014, and available ashttp://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/10/31/german_green_energy_revolution_backyard_windmills_solar_gas.

[6] Korean Central News Agency (KCNA, 2014), “Natural Energy Institute Established in DPRK”, dated November 4, 2014, and available as http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2014/201411/news04/20141104-10ee.html.

[7] BusinessKorea (2014), “Dark Outlook: Domestic Solar Power Demand Expected to Plummet”, dated October 15, 2014, and available as http://www.businesskorea.co.kr/article/6812/dark-outlook-domestic-solar-power-demand-expected-plummet.

Mac Millar meets the DPR Korean football team in Melbourne


On Monday 12 January Mac Millar travelled from Brisbane to Melbourne in order to meet up with the visiting DPR Korean Football team - in support of our Football Play it Forward Project.

Rotarian Rob Ward and the Rotary Club of Brighton North made it all happen and were able to connect a number of interesting pieces of the puzzle here - and bring enormous smiles to everyone's face. Read Rob's press release here.

Our project is now about 20% funded - but we need more support if we are to reach our target of 1400 soccer balls and uniforms for orphanages in the DPRK.


30 families are breathing easier

30 families are breathing easier thanks to smokeless stoves

[Dean from Econofit just shared this with me - noticing the link to Rotary in Lynn's posting. This is a wee bit away from he DPRK - in Vanuatu]

After months of planning and arranging with the Rotary club, the Tina1 Cargo ship finally dropped off boxes of stove parts on my beach.


This project was started by the Rotary club in collaboration with Carlie Congdon, an amazing community health Peace Corps Volunteer who completed her service last year. My task: deliver the last shipment of stoves to their new homes in Moriu village on the East side of Epi.




After constructing it, I took one of the stoves for a test drive: I’ve been cooking on an open fire myself for the past several months, so I was amazed at how fast and clean the stove worked. It’s benefits:

  • It’s a wood stove which means that free fuel is in infinite supply on our somewhat remote island.
  • Uses small pieces of fire wood easily collected around the house (no gat axe? no problem!)
  • Reduces smoke/carbon dioxide by 80% (less crying and coughing and overall misery generally associated with cooking on fires)
  • Condenses the heat of the fire allowing food to cook faster (so that you can get back to doing what you love to do.)
  • Reduces soot on saucepans! (I spend 15 minutes a day scrubbing the black soot off of my saucepans, so this is a special treat.)



A week later my neighbors Kolika, Lorna, and baby Rosita, our friend Jonah, and I travelled to the other side of Epi to deliver the stoves. Here’s the official handing over with the Chief of Moriu on the left, and the church elder in the middle.



One of my Abu women had pulled me aside a few months ago and said that she wanted to be the first in her village to get a stove. Despite her age she insists on cooking for herself and knew that a stove like this would greatly improve her daily life and overall health. Here is Abua gleefully opening up her stove box :)



After passing out the 29 stoves, we demonstrated their construction… 



Here is Kolika piecing together the arms of a stove.



The group on my mat proudly built 6 stoves- and everyone from our chief to our Abuas to our children had a hand in constructing their stoves.


Overall, 29 stoves were delivered, built, and prayed over that day-enough for the entire village of Moriu to reduce the smoke in their kitchens and make life a bit easier day by day. The village of Moriu and myself wish to extend our thanks to Carlie “Maria” Congdon for organizing this project, Kolika, Lorna, Jonah, and Rosita for helping to facilitate this training, the Rotary club for providing the funding and arrangements, and President Obama for sending us crazy Americans to the other side of the planet to be a part of these simple, life-changing projects.



Update - Football Play it Forward

This week we have a flurry of positive activity around Mac Millar's project.

We have now secured commitments in excess of our original plan for 200 soccer balls and uniforms and so we investigating now how we could grow this for bigger impact, possibly with company sponsors.

Our partner Dr. Jong has designated two orphanages as initial targets and so we are looking into the possibility of expanding our reach into the other 10 institutions on his list. 

We are exploring football jerseys as well as football boots.

Meanwhile Rob just noted that the DPRK team will be heading to Australian in January to compete in the Asian Cup. One game will take place in Melbourne so perhaps a chance to connect with this project.

Reforming North Korea

Al Jazeera English

It seems that, at long last, North Korea has decided to begin Chinese-style reforms.

Andrei Lankov

There is big news coming from North Korea recently, though it has gone largely unnoticed. Indeed, when North Korea is mentioned in the international media, it is usually because of the unending saga of the nuclear crisis or because of some (unsubstantiated) rumours pertaining to the apex of power in Pyongyang. Such news may sell papers and/or increase page views, but it is usually forgotten quickly with little - if any - consequences.

At the same time, news about North Korean society and its economy seldom make headlines. It is simply not sexy enough to talk about some new decision by the cabinet of ministers. However, such decisions are likely to have more impact on the future of the country than all the bellicose remarks that are North Korean diplomats' stock and trade.

This time, the big news is indeed a decision, the so-called "May 30th Measures", jointly issued early this year by the North Korean cabinet of ministers and the Central Committee of the Korean Worker's Party. This decision was initially classified, but because it was supposed to be read by so many people, its contents have become public knowledge.

Chinese-style reforms

The contents are revolutionary. It seems that, at long last, North Korea has decided to begin Chinese-style reforms. Marshal Kim Jong-un is obviously inclined to do what his late father, Generalissimo Kim Jong Il, was too afraid to, that is, to attempt to transform his country into a developmental dictatorship, largely similar to present-day Vietnam or China.

This decision did not come out of the blue. Indeed, it agrees very well with what Kim Jong Un and his advisers have quietly been doing over the last three years - albeit the slow-motion transformation of the country has attracted little attention from outside world.

The first significant step was the introduction of the so-called "June 28th Measures". These measures were introduced in 2012, but only became fully into force in 2013. While on paper, they did not look that ground-breaking, they represent a sweeping reform of agricultural management in the North.

The "June 28th Measures" allowed North Korean farmers to create their own production teams of five or six people. It was not explicitly stated, but it was a signal that individual households should register as "production teams". Such teams were given a plot of land, the assumption being that they would toil the same area for several consecutive years. The land technically remained under the jurisdiction of the state-owned and state-managed "collective farm", but the produce would henceforth be split 70:30 between the state and the production team (ie the family). Up until then, North Korean production teams had been much larger, and all produce had to be submitted to the state in exchange for a fixed daily grain ration that was allocated to every farmer. 

In essence, this reform marked a seismic shift: It marked the first step towards the reprivatisation of agriculture.

Best harvest

June 28th Measures" have worked out even better than North Korea's leaders might have expected. The year 2013 (the first year that the reforms were fully in force) brought the best harvest that North Korea has seen in decades. The world media, predictably enough, missed the entire story, but in 2013, North Korea, for the first time since the late 1980s, produced almost enough food to feed itself. Even though there was a severe drought this year, the new system has seemingly proved its resilience, and initial reports about the harvest are also quite positive.

Given the precedent in agriculture, the "May 30th Measures" are not quite as surprising as they may first appear, though they are indeed truly radical by the standards of North Korea before 2013.

According to these measures, from 2015, North Korean farming households (for ideological purposes still branded "production teams") will be allocated not 30 percent but 60 percent of the total harvest.

Additionally, farming households will be given large plots of land - some 3,300sq m - to act as their kitchen gardens. Until now, North Korea, unlike nearly all other communist states, never tolerated private agriculture to any significant degree, and thus, for decades, kitchen gardens were limited to a meagre 100sq m.

The measures did not stop there, though. This time the North Korean leadership has set its sights on reforming the moribund and hollowed out state industrial sector. According to the reforms, directors of state factories will find themselves covered by a new "director responsibility system". This system makes a director, hitherto state-appointed and carefully supervised representative of the party and state, into the approximate equivalent of a private businessman (factory managers in North Korea are almost always men). Under the new system, factory directors will have the freedom to decide how, when and where they purchase technologies, raw materials and spare parts necessary for their enterprises. They will also be allowed to decide who to sell to. They are also given the right to hire and fire workers, as well as to decide how much to pay for a particular job.

Under the new system, there is a tacit assumption that directors will be able to reward themselves generously for their own work - a feature that makes them virtually indistinguishable from private entrepreneurs in market economies. As a matter of fact, a few foreign delegations that recently visited North Korea were privately briefed about coming changes.

Bad track record

Of course, these are just plans and they have not yet been implemented. Nevertheless, recent changes in agriculture seemingly demonstrate that Kim Jong Un means business. There are serious problems that the North Korean economy will have to overcome in the future, above all, the severe shortage of foreign investment. Due to the remarkably bad track record of North Korean companies in dealing with foreign investors, international sanctions, and the country's dubious reputation, foreign investors will be wary. Without foreign investment, we should not expect a dramatic take-off. Let us not forget that the North Korean economy has many bottlenecks, some of which can be fixed only with large investments from outside - the sorry state of North Korea's electricity network, railways and roads are just a few examples.

It would also be naive to expect a reforming North Korea to become either significantly more liberal or to jettison its nuclear programme. The North Korean government is only too aware that their people face a highly attractive alternative that is South Korea, right next door. The government is not enthusiastic about an East German-style revolution. Hence, they are likely to remain highly repressive in their domestic policy, and they are also likely to maintain their nuclear potential in order to ward off possibility of humanitarian intervention.

Nonetheless, there are good reasons to believe that the new system will deliver impressive results. North Korean agriculture, partially freed of statist irrationality, is already doing better than ever. One should expect that industry will start to catch up once capitalist (or if you prefer, "market") system is introduced formally into the state sector. At the end of the day, this is good news for everybody in and outside North Korea, though one should not expect an overnight transformation.

Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of "The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia".

North Korea, Open for Business

Life in Rason, a special economic zone far from the police state in Pyongyang, is ... well ... almost normal.

RASON,North Korea — For the few who have ever been to North Korea, it might be a familiar feeling: that of being inside a country, while at the same time feeling outside of it.Visitors stroll through the streets as if they are stuck inside a huge transparent sphere. Foreigners manage to break through that barrier only rarely, and if so, only for brief moments. These breakthroughs are what visitors speak about with excitement: how they raised a shy smile from a child; how one of their assigned guides finally opened up after a long night of drinking and provided a glimpse into his personal desires and worries.

In the West, North Korea is mostly seen in surreal images of its young leader Kim Jong Un, goose-stepping soldiers on Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square, or dangerous rockets and starving children. The country of 25 million people does not easily show its real face; xenophobia, nationalist pride, and the state's tightly controlled media stand in the way. In my 23 years of alternatively living in, visiting, and following North Korea, I can recall only a few moments when I did not feel isolated from the North Koreans around me.

So my September 2014 visit with a small group of Western tourists to the Special Economic Zone of Rason, in the northwest of the country near the Chinese border, was mind-boggling. Here is what North Korea could be, even without risky reforms: more open, more human, more approachable, more honest, and much more interested in business cooperation with foreigners. No insulated rubber sphere.

The visit started with the feeling of leaving the country. I passed a checkpoint into Rason that reminded me of a state border.  

At first glance, there is not much to be seen -- which makes it fascinating. Although Rason has been a special zone since 1991, it's a part of North Korea that looks, smells, and feels like the original: on the drive into the city we saw bumpy roads, villages with low white buildings, kitchen gardens, surrounding walls, and long wooden chimneys. In the city, which has a population ofroughly 200,000, oxcarts passed by, children with red scarves marched to school, and everywhere could be seen slogans glorifying the "Great Sun of the 21st Century, Comrade Kim Jong Un" and the ruling Korean Workers' Party's "military first" policy. Two bronze statues of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung were under construction. Long chains of red pepper dried in the warm September sun -- in the winter, residents will use them to make kimchi, a staple dish of fermented cabbage.

That Rason appears much like other parts of North Korea stands in stark contrast to the Special Economic Zone at Kaesong, near the South Korean border. There, 50,000 selected North Korean women are brought in by buses in the morning to work at South Korean factories and then returned to their living quarters outside the zone in the evening. It felt like a zoo.

In the central town square of Rason stood a huge television screen. Like the one in front of the Pyongyang railway station, it showed the state TV news and occasionally a movie. In the evening, people sat on the ground and watched. Could we take photos, I asked? After five days in Pyongyang and other tourist destinations we had grown accustomed to the prohibition of taking photos from the bus. In Rason, however, our guide told us, "Take photos as you wish." (With official permission to take pictures, it was almost no fun anymore.)

Around the square little stalls sold food and drinks. Surprisingly, our guide allowed us to sit among ordinary people who have not been brought here for a "spontaneous party" with foreigners. Rather than run away,they gave me curious looks, and then broad smiles and excited conversation after I told the waitress in Korean that I spent a semester at Pyongyang's elite Kim Il Sung University in 1991. I sat among these North Koreans with a strange feeling of happiness -- and I think how sad it was that I felt so excited about something that would be normal in the rest of the world.

The next afternoon, we visited the local open market -- an experience the capital no longer offers for foreigners. Only in 2004 was I allowed to visit Pyongyang's Tongil street market, and my guides rushed me through. In Rason we got two hours, but no photos this time.

At the entrance to the market, a group of women who seemed to lack a proper permit quickly folded up their wooden boxes with cigarettesand fled as soon as they spotted a man in uniform. After we passed through the entranceway, a huge area opened up in front of us, roughly the size of a soccer field, most of it indoors. The lanes of the market were closely packed with women selling items ranging from fresh fish to refrigerators. The fruit corner offered pineapples, bananas, nectarines, grapes, and more -- a selection that would have made an East German's heart miss a beat. 

The prices are hefty; a pound of bananas costs just under a dollar. All goods seem to be imported from China, and all transactions are made in Chinese renminbi. They also accept the local currency, one of the traders told me, but only at what is known in the West as the "black-market rate." (But in contrast to Pyongyang, where tourists are stubbornly quoted an unrealistic 132 won to the euro, a Rason bank offered the far more reasonable 10,476 won to the euro.)

The openness continued. During my visit to a textile factory, the manager answered all of my questions frankly, including about the wages of his seamstresses. He pays them roughly $80 a month, depending on performance. Try asking that question in Pyongyang and you'll get nonsensical numbers in response. While I was still trying to get used to receiving real answers, the manager asked whether we noticed that the ski suits they were producing had a tag saying "Made in China" sewn into them. We nodded; he explained that this must be done so his client can sell them in South Korea. This is nothing new; I have seen "Made in Italy" suits produced in Pyongyang. What is different is that people in Rason were open about it.

I left Rason with a sense of excitement about what is possible in this isolated country. In November 2013, the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, a top government body, announced the establishment of 13 new special economic zones spread throughout North Korea.

But for Rason to become a model, it has to be successful, and overcome the concerns of skeptical cadres. Many observers agree that an economic opening of North Korea would help solve many problems -- including security, human rights, and humanitarian issues -- in a sustainable way by making the country a stakeholder in peace, with international recognition. Nonetheless, it seems that most of the world has decided to ignore Rason. North Korea has decided to open up, but nobody seems to care.

Foreign Policy: Rudiger Frank


Rotarian Action Group Helps Countries Grow Indigenous Crops

Australian Bruce French has been eating locally for 35 years– long before it became a culinary trend. Now he’s working with Rotary members to help countries struggling with food security do the same.

French founded the not-for-profit Food Plants International, which maintains a database of 25,000 edible plants that includes descriptions, lists of countries and climates where they grow, photos and drawings, and cooking methods.

“There are thousands of nutritious plants, but people don’t have any information about them,” says Buz Green, an agriculturalist and member of the Rotary Club of Devonport North in Australia. “We’re trying to bridge some of the gaps.” Green launched the Learn Grow project with French in 2007 to help people in developing countries grow local food that suits their nutritional needs.

The project receives support from the Devonport North club and Rotary District 9830. Early last year, the RI Board recognized the Food Plant Solutions Rotarian Action Group, whose 195 members are helping support Learn Grow efforts. Past RI Director John Thorne chairs the group.

“Rotarian teams in developing countries inevitably identify hunger, malnutrition, and food security as critical issues,” Green explains. “They tend to look to Western solutions to address food production issues.”

The problem, he says, is that Western crops don’t have the right nutritional profile for people in the developing world, whose diets often have little variety. Indigenous crops can allow them to eat more nutritiously and are already adapted to local pests, diseases, and climatic conditions.

“Virtually every woman in the tropical world is anemic,” French adds. “We go there with cabbages and make the situation 10 times worse.”

In 2010 Learn Grow launched a pilot project in the Solomon Islands, producing a compendium of local edible plants, field guides for growers, and a book on crops for schools and community groups. Local organizations provide support and distribute information while a qualified agriculturist serves as a technical support specialist. The project team has received inquiries from 20 developing countries; another effort is underway in North Korea where a Canadian Rotary member will serve as the specialist.

The principles of eating locally are gaining momentum in the Western world, French says. “My children and lots of other people thought I was eccentric for 35 years. Now I’ve become fairly trendy in my old age.”

By Diana Schoberg and Katie Hills

This story originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of The Rotarian.


Renovated May Day Stadium

DPRK top leader watches football match at renovated May Day Stadium

PYONGYANG, Oct. 29 (Xinhua) -- Top leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)Kim Jong Un watched a women's football match on Tuesday here at the newly renovated May Day Stadium, the official KCNA news agency reported Wednesday.

The match was between women's national football team and the Wolmido team, with the former beating the latter 9:0.

Kim was satisfied with the fact that the stadium was remodeled as "an icon of the sports facilities in the country" and a world-class stadium on the occasion of the founding anniversary of the Korean Workers' Party, which marked its 69th anniversary on Oct. 10.

Kim said the DPRK people showed great interest in the 17th Asian Games and the country is now witnessing a craze for sports and physical training. He then gave instructions for turning the stadium into a sports center to better improve the people's cultural life.

A ceremony was held on Tuesday to celebrate the completion of the remodeling of the stadium, which is now able to accommodate about 150,000 people, according to KCNA.

Choe Ryong Hae, member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau and chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, addressed the ceremony. He called for building more facilities and organizing more mass sports activities across the country to benefit the people.

A number of senior officials including Choe Ryong Hae and Hwang Pyong So, director general of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army, also watched Tuesday's football match.

Editor: Fu Peng

English.news.cn   2014-10-29 14:10:13   

Fertilizer and Food Aid Needed for 2015

Humanitarian Food Aid Needed

It is always distressing to receive messages like this because I have seen first hand the grim reality of what people have to put on their tables at home in North Korea, and it stands in such stark contrast with the situation in neighbouring China or Russia.

Our friend has written this week:

As you know, I visited to Taiwan in 2011, at that time I was told from a friend of mine that a lady whose name was just Hope attached to RC Taipei wanted to help us donate food (white rice) amounting to 500MT, even if the amount was a bit small volume as compared with urgently required amount. However, I could not hold on contact with her to the last because that friend did not introduce her to me.

Also my ex-boss, Resident Representative of UNDP Pyongyang Office came from Belgium strongly mentioned to me several times that it was important for DPRK to negotiate with Brunei in terms of economic relation and humanitarian aid. Just then, the boss planned with me to go to Brunei for arranging a round table meeting with purpose of negotiating provision of food and fertilizer to our country under humanitarian aid, but failed to attain our aim, as he was moved to other Office by his promotion.

Currently, the food situation of our country has taken an unfavourable turn, thus leading not to have supplied the food to people as it stands. The reason is why we have been affected with severe natural disasters for a long time in spite of the fertilizer shortage, consequently declined in agricultural production. Furthermore, we are under great apprehensions about absolute deficiency of the fertilizer necessary for grain production of next year.

For such reason, we are very keen on connection with charitable foundations and agencies in Taiwan and Brunei through good offices of Rotarians with a view to promotion of economic relation and cooperation for food and fertilizer under humanitarian aid.
When it comes to amount of the food and fertilizer we want, it will depend on their decisions based on humanitarian standpoint.

Your kind guidance would be appreciated.  

So to help him we are searching now for Rotarian - and non-Rotarian sources of fertilizer or food aid that could help the DPR Koreans get through this Winter and into next Spring.

Koryolink signs up 2.4 million 3G users by 1H14

North Korean mobile operator CHEO Technology (Koryolink) signed up 2.4 million 3G users by 30 June 2014, North Korea Tech reports, citing figures released by the operator’s parent company Orascom Telecom Media and Technology (OTMT). Koryolink, which is the country’s sole 3G cellular network operator, launched in December 2008 and claimed one million customers by February 2012; the cellco reached the two million subscriber milestone on 29 May 2013.

According to TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database, Koryolink is a 75/25 joint venture between OTMT of Egypt and state-owned Korea Post & Telecoms Corporation (KPTC). Coverage of Koryolink’s 3G network has been gradually expanded from solely the capital at launch, to a further 15 main cities (including Wonsan, Hamhung, Pyongsong, Anju, Kaechon, Nampo, Sariwon and Haeju), 100 smaller towns and cities, and 22 highways and railways by November 2012 (latest available data at September 2014), equivalent to around 90% of the population, but just 14% of the territory.

Rotarian uses deep ties to help the North’s needy

‘North Koreans are like a mirror; if you smile at them, they smile back’

March 7th, 2014
Kamila Kingstone

Randal Eastman, a Canadian Rotarian living in Shanghai, is no stranger to working with the North Korean government.

Eastman’s work with the DPRK began in 2001, when he received a phone call from a North Korean official interested in acquiring a solar oven for a Pyongyang orphanage. A number of Rotary Clubs had for some time been involved in projects to send solar ovens to places with little electricity, and after two years of negotiations, the Shanghai Club was able to put together the funds to send a small team of Rotarians to install the first oven in Pyongyang.

“Everything was very formal at first,” Eastman told NK News. “During the initial meeting at the orphanage, everyone was friendly but a bit distant. The younger children especially seemed afraid of us. After a couple of days, though, everyone was smiling and laughing.”

Finding the orphanage largely bare of essential supplies, the group also brought medicines, toys, clothing, and purchased in the country refrigerators and televisions. After installing the oven, the Rotarians showed the orphanage residents how to use it to cook eggs, rice, and bread, which they then ate together.

A year after his initial visit, in April 2004, the news broke of a chemical explosion in the North Korean town of Ryongchon. Killing more than 150 people, injuring around 1,300, and damaging around 8,000 buildings, the explosion left a great many people permanently disabled.

After three months of hasty fundraising, Eastman visited Pyongyang to deliver 120 wheelchairs to people injured in the blast. (The DPRK-made film of the official welcoming ceremony is available to watch online.) As part of his trip, Eastman visited the Manyongdae Pen Factory, which had been set up after the Korean War to provide work for disabled soldiers, and now provides a livelihood for people injured in work-related accidents. He was also shown the Dongrim County Home for the Disabled, where he found the elderly residents making do with a handful of heavy chain-driven tricycle wheelchairs, and promised a further 36 wheelchairs for their use.

Eastman is full of stories, one of the most poignant of which concerns two North Korean boys, aged 12 and 14, whom he arranged to receive heart surgery in Shanghai in 2005.

“They were here for six weeks, as we had to fatten them up before their operations,” he said. “When they were well enough to return home, we had a farewell dinner with the hospital staff and Rotarians. The older boy brought a guitar and played songs with some young South Korean members of our Interact club. We witnessed a really powerful emotive moment when North and South Koreans were singing together.”

Having worked with the DPRK for 13 years, Eastman has built up familiarity with the Korean Committee for the Promotion of International Trade and he credits this for the extent of his work.
“North Koreans are like a mirror; if you smile at them, they smile back,” he said. “If you have an angry face at them, they have an angry face back.

“There aren’t many agencies that have their respect on the ground. Our Korean counterparts have the whole weight of the system to push against in order to get something done. It’s all about building up good relations. In the long-term it’s only meaningful as long as I maintain an open communication channel.”

Eastman emphasises that Rotary is not a charity, but a worldwide network of clubs composed of businesspeople. Three years ago, Eastman worked alongside the Shanghai branch of the Rotaract Club (a branch of the Rotarians for 18-30 year-olds) with clubs in France and Hungary to refurbish an operating theater in a North Korean children’s hospital. He also assisted the disaster-relief charity, Shelterbox, in sending tents and construction materials to North Korea in January 2013 and January 2014 after two years’ devastating floods and typhoons.

“People really came together to deal with the immediate disaster, the cleanup, and to take care of those who lost their homes. It is a pity more people could not be exposed to this side of DPRK life,” he said.

Having joined forces with Koryo Tours and (the North) Korea Education Fund, Eastman is currently raising funds for an orphanage in Munchon, Kangwon Province. The plan is to install solar water-heaters so that the children and staff can bathe in hot water, and to buy soap made by Korean disabled workers.

While some criticize NGOs sending aid to North Korea, arguing that it allows the regime to survive, Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow on North East Asia at the conservative U.S. think tank the Heritage Foundation, told NK News he commended the work done by organizations like the Shanghai Rotarians.

“There is donor fatigue constraining donations to North Korea, when the DPRK government has not implemented changes to its economic system which would reduce the level of assistance it would require in the future.” Klinger said. “Charitable NGOs do admirable work providing assistance to the people of North Korea suffering horrendous conditions due to the policies of their own government.”

Eastman’s most recent project, which began in summer 2013, focuses on relieving hunger and involves working with Canadian Rotarians and the Food Plant Solutions Rotarian Action Group. The group works in 80 countries – including the DPRK – to identify food plants native to the target country that have high nutritional value, and using agricultural techniques to improve their production.

“People are starving, and when we talk to our counterparts, we realize how dire the situation is,” Eastman said. “The best way to relieve malnutrition is to work locally.”

In the future Eastman said, “the two areas I want to focus on at the moment are energy poverty and malnutrition. But my work in North Korea is really a hobby; I’m primarily a businessman. I’m continually invited to visit Pyongyang, but I just don’t have enough time.”

More can be learned about Eastman’s projects by emailing him at randy@rotarychina.org. 

Interview: Massimo Urbani, former aid coordinator in N. Korea

The last part of NK News miniseries dedicated to Humanitarian issues in North Korea is an interview with former Italian Diplomat and aid coordinator in North Korea, Dr. Massimo Urbani, who has worked in North Korea from 1997 to 2007, going back frequently after his duties in the country were over.

Full interview transcript follows:

NK News: How did you start your work in the DPRK and what do you recall of your first time in North Korea?

Massimo Urbani: I am a surgeon by training and a diplomat by accident. Back in the early 1990s I was working with a religious NGO in a hospital in Cameroon. I received a call from Brussels, as they were looking for people to cover coordination roles in the DPRK (during the famine, when North Korea requested aid from the international community). They asked whether I would be available to start working immediately, as the situation required urgent care, and I agreed. Three days later I was in Pyongyang.

I have to say that back then I was not very familiar at all – as I guess many other international professionals weren’t as well – with the culture and the history of North Korea. I only knew about Kim Il Sung and Pak Doo Ik. Most people mention Orwell whenever discussing the DPRK, but I truly felt it was very similar to the situation we had in Italy during the 1950s. Now, this was back in early 1997, so long before Italy opened any official relations with the DPRK in 2001 (the first country in the EU aside from Sweden to do so). Foreigners were not at all a common sight back then: When we visited the zoo, I was looking at the animals, but our North Korean guides were constantly looking at my family. I was there with the EU Commission, then with UN agencies and, after 2001, with the Italian government.

After a few years of service in the country, I was given diplomatic status and became Consular Attaché, so I was the first official to issue visas for North Korean citizens going to Italy. However, at some point, someone in the Italian government must have changed plans for the DPRK, and my career there ended quite abruptly in March 2007 – and to this day I still do not know the exact reason why they decided to pull the plug. Since then, I have been going back on many occasions, given my extensive network of contacts in the country. I have now opened an office for my own association (C’E’ Italia), devoted to cultural and humanitarian cooperation between Italy and the DPRK.

“It’s the whole aid system that doesn’t work, and North Korea is a primary example of this.”

NK News: Why did the cooperation between Italy and North Korea change all of a sudden?

Urbani: Well, I can say things started to change in the mid-2000s. For some reason, Italy pulled back and some other countries made steps forward. I think it’s a shame, really. I have since then worked in other difficult zones, and I have just returned from a mission in Libya where the situation is much worse than North Korea. I can tell you the way most humanitarian missions and diplomatic relations are managed is...questionable to say the least. It’s the whole aid system that doesn’t work, and North Korea is a primary example of this.

NK News: Can you give us some more details? What do you mean by that?

Urbani: It’s simple. I have spent ten years, not a few weeks or months...in North Korea, working in close contact with the people, the local authorities (and) various foreign NGOs, so I believe I am qualified to tell you a couple of things. There is a general misunderstanding, sometimes a gross ignorance of what North Korea is and what kind of help (or assistance) the country and the people may need. So, first of all, I think we have to clarify the notion of “victims” in North Korea, which is this: everyone, every single North Korean is a victim, including those we assume to be ‘the elites’.

“We have to clarify the notion of “victims” in North Korea, which is this: everyone, every single North Korean is a victim, even the so called elites.”

Everyone there is one of the “weak” and we should help them and treat them differently. All of them, even the members of so called “elites,” or the privileged citizens of Pyongyang live in empty buildings, with no heating, no hot water, no glass on their windows most of the times, with a constant shortage of electric power, very little transportation; in other words, without any of the basic commodities we take for granted. The West knows very little about what really goes on there, and this is why all we read is obnoxious reports about their leaders having sex with traffic girls and what not.

Whenever I tried to deny such rumours, I was met with disbelief, and people told me that years of life in the DPRK had made me as “brainwashed” as the average North Korean is supposed to be. People who had never even set foot there insisted that North Koreans were keeping all our aid, medications, food, etc., in some “secret facilities” underground, purposely starving the general population. Let me tell you, these are all insane rumours, this is bogus, this is the real propaganda. None of this is true. Not even close to resembling the truth. There are journalists (my experience is with Italians, but I can see them going to North Korea from everywhere, really), and they go there with a specific agenda, that has been set months before their trip. They go there knowing exactly what they will write upon their return home, what they will “report” to the outside world. In many cases, there is no political will, as far as I can see, to have normal relations with the DPRK.

NK News: Could you be more specific?

Urbani: Well, take the case of Italy; we had a great start, The former ambassador, H. E. Attilio Massimo Iannucci, was there first. Italy made an innovative move back then and signed two different Memoranda of Understanding between us and them. However, since then, we have changed things, moving onto a situation where the DPRK keeps an embassy in Rome, while we have given all diplomatic power for the North to our embassy in Seoul.

To be more precise, while the DPRK has appointed their ambassador to Italy, responsible for all the countries in the Mediterranean area (Spain, Portugal, etc.), we basically deal with Pyongyang through Seoul (and you can imagine what effect this has on North Korean authorities). There is no reciprocity. If this is not crazy then I do not know what is. We have a country that will certainly be reunified in five to 10 years, and yet we’re neglecting even the basic diplomatic protocol.

NK News: You sound quite confident on the reunification issue. Could you elaborate?

Urbani: Absolutely. See, reunification is what North Korea has always wanted, although –and this may come as a surprise to you – when I first got there, the whole topic was taboo in daily conversation. It was forbidden for us and for North Koreans to talk about reunification. Today things are different.

“In the specific case of North Korea, the issue is that no one cares about them [...] I think the West is generally indifferent to the life and struggle of the average North Korean.”

NK News: Back to the issue of diplomatic relations with North Korea: what is missing in our relations with the DPRK?

Urbani: Well, I think the problem lies in how diplomacy itself is organized. There is an official diplomacy, and then a parallel diplomacy and then a secret diplomacy, and finally, even a criminal diplomacy. Four levels, four layers where different actors play according to their interests. I don’t believe, for instance, that the main problem in places like Africa or North Korea is really the shortage of food, which is what is normally “advertised” in Western media, to get people to donate money or to justify the work of organization such as FAO. I think it is rather the issue of the lack of water, and mostly an issue of delays, and lack of organization.

Anyhow, in the specific case of North Korea, the issue is that no one cares about them. You read about their government versus our government, in the media, but if you want my two cents on it, I think the West is generally indifferent to the life and struggle of the average North Korean. I believe we need to work to help North Korea join the international community as an active member, and then let the country reunify, on Korean terms with zero interference from any other country.

NK News: This brings you back to the thing you mentioned before, that in your view, there is no difference between those living in the countryside and the residents of Pyongyang: They’re all living a very harsh life, you said.

Urbani: Absolutely. I will add that, paradoxically, the ones who live in the countryside are slightly better off: they are not as pressured to conform, or not as rigidly controlled as those in Pyongyang are. Residents of Pyongyang live in constant fear of being sent out of the capital, due to the lack of decent medical facilities, or good schools in outer provinces, but in terms of general life, they have it worse.
All those skyscrapers you see in Pyongyang are empty, have no glass on their windows, no heating, no elevators, nothing. Just empty shells. On the contrary, in the countryside people are now “unofficially allowed” to keep part of what they produce for themselves, they can keep livestock, they can go out on the hills and farm some extra piece of land. In the city you are fully dependent on what the government provides – if and when they provide it.

“North Korea needs senior, well-paid specialists, it is a difficult country to work in, and a 60-year-old local official is unlikely to ever listen to the advice of a young western NGO worker.”

NK News: So why do we hear of life conditions improving in the cities, and life conditions getting harder and harder in the countryside?

Urbani: Well, my idea is that things are presented to you in a certain way, by the media, because they need you to see North Korea in a certain way and quite frankly, what I can read about North Korea (about the people, the real country, the living conditions, the state of malnutrition... the tangible things – not the speculations on dynastic succession) is generally written by self-proclaimed “reporters” who have no idea of where North Korea is on the map and in the history of Asia.

They simply report rumours. Their “research” is mostly based on word of mouth and gossip. You don’t have any journalist, ever, at any point, visiting the places and homes I have visited: factories for artificial limbs, hospitals, homes for the elderly, schools for the blind, orphanages, regular countryside homes, you name it. None of them has ever spoken to a North Korean farmer. They really don’t know anything.

And to make things worse, most of the foreign personnel currently at work in the country are perhaps still too young and do not have enough experience. They often live in closed compounds within the capital and have little interaction with the rest of the country. And it is also a matter of them being too young and frankly underpaid.

North Korea needs senior, well-paid specialists, it is a difficult country to work in, and a 60-year-old local official is unlikely to ever listen to the advice – or worse: “the orders” – of a young NGO worker in his late 20s, who is not a doctor, not an agronomist, not a farmer, and maybe has a degree in international development or human resources management from some good Western college, which is a good thing, but it doesn’t help the North Koreans. They need real help, from people who can save the life of their children, build better factories, perform surgery, cure their parents or teach them how to grow new crops. The rest is just chatter.

NK News: Sounds like a harsh statement.

Urbani: Maybe, but this is what I have witnessed in more than 30 years as a doctor and a humanitarian aid professional, and, in specific, in my 15 years at work with North Koreans, 10 of which I spent in the country. North Korea is not Africa. To give you an example, UN agencies did some courses on breastfeeding, in the DPRK, a country where every single woman knows already what this is. The country has a very good level of education. It is not Somalia or Eritrea and we should not treat it as if it were. International organizations use the same aid protocols over and over again, everywhere they go.

“They need real help, from people who can save the life of their children, build better factories, perform surgery, cure their parents or teach them how to grow new crops. The rest is just chatter.”
These protocols are obsolete and they are clearly not suited to the North Korean situation, yet that’s all the DPRK gets from us. I have fought for years to introduce books (and I mean manuals, technical or medical publications) from the South into the North, because that is the best thing we could do for them. It’s ready and costs almost nothing. And yet I see international organizations spending money on new courses, seminars, trying to teach North Koreans what they already know.

North Korea needs less funding and more good ideas. When working there, I have been on some missions where we delivered rice to areas where the major crop was rice. It’s nonsense. They need better farming tools, they need to introduce new crops, to get to know more vegetables, perhaps change their diet. We keep on delivering basic staples as if were an African country. One more example: North Koreans need better water and sanitation protocols. They need simple yet effective things like soap factories, because one of the major problems they have is the spreading of bacteria from hand-to-mouth diseases. Soap and books: simple things to make their life better.

“When you see some footage of hospitals with liquor bottles used as IV’s, well, that’s a signal from North Korea that they really need help in the medical sector.”

NK News: So the health care situation is a much worse problem than the food issue in your view?

Urbani: Absolutely. It’s staggering, really. The level of their health care, and again, this is my experience as a surgeon in war zones, is stuck in the late 1800s. They still rely quite a lot on herbal treatments, and before I got there with others in the mid-1990s and introduced some of the most basic medications we have in the West, they had not even heard of them. When you see some footage of hospitals with liquor bottles used as IV’s, well, that’s a signal from North Korea that they really need help in the medical sector.

They actually show different things to different organizations, according to what the local hospital or orphanage or farm needs. I recall once, I was wearing a tie with the Red Cross logo on it, during a visit to a hospital, the local official started to deliver a speech related to what their needs in the area were, thanking the Red Cross for their efforts, and so forth. He was soon interrupted by a member of our staff, who pointed out that I was actually from the Italian Cooperation Office, and the local official immediately started with a whole new speech, this time mentioning a new set of issues and thanking the Italian government.

NK News: So the information we get from them is manipulated.

Urbani: It couldn’t be otherwise. This is the trade they had to learn, in order to get more aid, year after year, not because they are evil or anything, but because North Korea has been classified and treated as country that can only function in a regime of aid dependency, since the outbreak of the famine. What is needed, on the other hand, is a gradual yet irreversible integration of North Korea within the international forum; we cannot afford to leave it at the margins forever.

And we need to learn how to argue with them, constructively: I don’t recall a day, in my ten years there, that went on without some sort of discussion or argument. The tone was always polite of course, but I refused to simply deliver aid and leave them alone. I would tell them what they could and should do in order to improve things.

“They do try and manipulate the flow of aid, simply because very few people have sat down with them and discussed ways to do things better.”

They try the same tricks, over and over again. They would tell me, “We can’t visit that facility, because it has been raining, the bridge came down, too much snow,” or whatever else, then I would reply, “Fair enough: We’ll have to cancel all shipments and future plans then, and go back home.” Believe it or not, all of a suddenly that particular bridge was up again...

What I mean by this is that they do try and manipulate the flow of aid, simply because very few people have sat down with them and discussed ways to do things better. I think North Korean authorities have been used to some foreign workers who limited themselves to delivering food or medication and then asking for details on how such aid would be used, before going away for a week to relax in China, nearly every month. I, on the other hand, have been out in the fields with North Koreans, even on freezing winter days, questioning things: “Do you need food here, or do you simply need better irrigation?” Those were the questions I asked, and this attitude ultimately paid off.

NK News: What do you mean by “foreign aid workers taking a week off in China each month”?

Urbani: I mean exactly that. I mean that the money we pay for aid in North Korea goes (in part) to finance leisure time for foreign workers there, who feel “stressed out” by the environment, by the way things work (or do not work), by the lack of social life, etc. Do not think for a moment that every cent you donate for “food in North Korea” all goes to those who need food; part of it does, part of it doesn’t. I stand by this, because I have been there and I know what I have seen. People can sue me if they wish to do so.

“Do not think for a moment that every cent you donate for ‘food in North Korea’ all goes to those who need food; part of it does, part of it doesn’t.”

NK News: How much humanitarian aid does North Korea acknowledge?

Urbani: Not much, in my view. North Korea received a great deal of aid, and yet they perform surgery in hospitals with rudimentary techniques, and very little anaesthesia. As I have already said, my primary experience is that of a doctor, and the situation in hospitals is really primitive. The North Korean government cannot publicly acknowledge all the aid it receives, because it would portray an image of a very weak country (as it is in fact). And, once again, the country is at war, officially, and when you’re at war, you can’t afford to look weak.

NK News: So is it all a political problem?

Urbani: It’s an economic problem, nowadays. The division started as a political problem and has been kept frozen in time, due to economic reasons. A reunified Korea would not only make millions of Korean families happy by finally addressing a gross historical injustice; it would change forever the economic balance in the world. A unified Korea can conquer markets and overshadow its neighbours within a decade. This, in my view, is one of the reasons why North Korea “must” remain the poor, destitute, hopeless place that it is in our media.

NK News: And you think it isn’t?

Urbani: No, not in the way the media talk about it. I’ll give you an example: I have been attending a Sunday mass every day for 10 years in North Korea. When the Vatican ordains a bishop for Korea, it does so for both sides: the North and the South. I don’t care what the media say about religion in North Korea: I am here to tell you that, as a devout Christian, I went to church every Sunday there. It was not a tourist show. Whenever I told these things to colleagues and friends, they told me I was being brainwashed. This is what happens when one speaks of humanity and normality in North Korea. They are people like us, but to say so is taboo. They repay kindness with kindness and stupidity with even more stupidity.

“I don’t care what the media say about religion in North Korea: I am here to tell you that, as a devout Christian, I went to church every Sunday there. It was not a tourist show.”

I will give you an example: Once we had a business delegation coming over from Rome. One of the members, a wealthy businessman, strictly refused to leave some of his electronic equipment at the airport. Now, we may argue all day about the rules they have, but the bottom line is: their country, their rules. I don’t think someone visiting, for instance, Singapore, would make a fuss at the airport because the country does not allow anyone to bring drugs. Singapore has a zero tolerance policy for drugs, and that’s their law, we have to respect it. Same goes for North Korea. From time to time they clamp down on mobile phones or cameras that visitors may bring in, you have to accept this before you decide to travel there.

Now, this Italian businessman refused to cooperate, and he was simply left in the hotel most of the time, they took him around only when necessary and three days after he was on his way back, having accomplished absolutely nothing. I am not saying this to imply that whatever the North Koreans do is right, but simply to illustrate that this kind of behavior, one that says, “I do not feel obliged to respect any law in North Korea” cannot work. We don’t argue with custom and immigration authorities at U.S. airports; why should we do it in North Korea?

“We need to train all North Korean health care workers, doctors, and the like, because their knowledge is not up to date, and this is crucial [...] this is one of the areas where we witness more unnecessary delays”

NK News: To wrap things up, aside from a different mindset, then, what is needed to help North Korea in immediate terms?

Urbani: First of all, we need to train all North Korean health care workers, doctors, and the like, because their knowledge is not up to date, and this is crucial. And let me add once more this is one of the areas where we witness unnecessary delays. International organizations waste time and resources trying to translate manuals in Korean, while they could simply take books from the South and bring them up North. This has been suggested to me by North Koreans themselves, and I can’t see why this should not be done immediately. Second, they need more hygiene; simply put, they need soaps, detergents and disinfectants. So more knowledge and more prevention against simple diseases. This all comes before food.

“How many people are happy to admit they have an STD or cancer? Not many. North Koreans are no exception”

Another thing, in my view, is the heating problem. It makes no sense to try and rebuild North Korea if the people have to freeze at work or in their sleep. Finally, address the “delay issue,” and by that I mean delays in medical help, flood and natural disaster help, all of these things come before the simplistic idea of just delivering rice bags to the country. I think we need to change the viewpoint and start thinking that North Koreans need to be able to cure themselves, as we would all rather do, in the same situation. How many people are happy to admit they have an STD or cancer? Not many. North Koreans are no exception. It’s not easy for them to be constantly seen as “the patients,” the ones in need. Once we understand that, maybe things will improve.