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.