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Interview with Tom Wilkinson - by CBC

P.E.I. rotary club quietly doing good in North Korea

Charlottetown service club involved in more than a dozen projects in North Korea over past 15 years

By Sara Fraser, CBC News Posted: Dec 19, 2017 4:00 PM AT
Last Updated: Dec 19, 2017 4:00 PM AT

Orphans in North Korea are benefiting from a solar hot water heating project with help from the Rotary Club of Charlottetown Royalty. 

Orphans in North Korea are benefiting from a solar hot water heating project with help from the Rotary Club of Charlottetown Royalty. 

A service club in Charlottetown has been quietly working on more than a dozen projects in North Korea over the last 15 years.

The relationship with the dictator-led republic began in 2002 when the Rotary Club of Charlottetown Royalty hosted a two-week mission from North Korean scientists researching potato storage and transportation. 

"In Korea at the time, they grew potatoes well because their climate is similar to ours, but they were losing 75 per cent of the crop because they didn't know anything about storage or processing," said rotarian Tom Wilkinson.

Two agricultural scientists and a trade official came from North Korea and stayed with P.E.I. rotarians who helped co-ordinate farm visits and trips to research and processing facilities, as well as the Atlantic Veterinary College and the then-Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro. 

"That was the beginning of the forging of a partnership and friendship that's existed right up till today," Wilkinson said. 

Since then, the club has provided food and vitamins to North Korean orphans, wheelchairs for children with disabilities, renovated an operating room in a children's hospital and helped deliver 2,300 shelters after a typhoon.

'Building trust'

The latest project, led by the Rotary Club of Charlottetown Royalty together with other rotary clubs in the Maritimes, installed a solar water heater for an orphanage of 523 children. Previously, they'd only had hot water two months of the year. 

'It's a question of building trust, all of it relating to peace and building understanding,' says rotarian Tom Wilkinson of the club's philanthropic work in North Korea including this solar water heater. (Submitted by Tom Wilkinson)

'It's a question of building trust, all of it relating to peace and building understanding,' says rotarian Tom Wilkinson of the club's philanthropic work in North Korea including this solar water heater. (Submitted by Tom Wilkinson)

It "became a great success and is now a model the government is using within the country," Wilkinson noted. 

The solar heater was the first project the North Korean government partnered with the clubs, Wilkinson said, providing 27 per cent of the funds.

"It's a question of building trust, all of it relating to peace and building understanding and a relationship," he said. "It's tough work, but we worked through friends and rotarians in China who help us a great deal with the logistics of everything." 

'You teach by example'

Some have questioned the ethics and wisdom of providing charity to North Korea, which has been testing weapons and threatening nuclear war against the U.S. — but Wilkinson said concerns for the needy there override all.  

"You can't have peace unless you have dialogue," he said. 

Some Canadian rotarians — none of them from P.E.I. — have travelled to North Korea to co-ordinate projects, he said, which he believes provided important opportunities for discussion. 

"A lot of it is by example, right?" Wilkinson said. "It's an educational process." 

Wilkinson vividly remembers one way his rotary club led by example — when the North Korean contingent visited in 2002, they were invited to a meeting with the club's board of directors, half of whom were women.

"When they came into this meeting and saw women, they were quite shocked!" Wilkinson said. "It was an opportunity to explain to them the role of women in society in Canada ... That's how you teach, you teach by example and exposing people to new ideas."  

Wilkinson estimates the club has provided about $30,000 over the 15 years for the projects.

'You have to be very cautious'

There have only been a few cases that caused conflict, Wilkinson recalls. One involved a project in which the government refused to allow rotarians to travel to monitor progress — in that case, North Korea moved the project to another location where visitors were allowed. 

The other was a major fishing project for a village devastated by a typhoon. 

"When we went to do it, they wanted to move the project to another locale," Wilkinson said. He believes the area was close to a nuclear development in North Korea — that project was called off. 

The just-completed solar water heating project was almost co-opted by the government as a propaganda tool, Wilkinson said.


"When we saw that we backed off and said no, we can't participate — find us a another orphanage in a rural area," Wilkinson said, and officials agreed. 

"You have to be very cautious when you're dealing in North Korea not to be drawn in."

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Article in the Rotarian - RIBI

Rotary in China

We first learned of Rotarians helping ShelterBox in North Korea but found a trail across the world. We tell you how it works. 

Rotary is a worldwide network with connections in many places from the slums of the underdeveloped countries to the wealth and extravagance of the highly developed western nations. Its connections reach into countries that are thought of as unreachable and one such country is North Korea. 
Through connections with China and reaching right across the world to Canada Rotarians have been able to work with North Koreans to make an impact and improve people’s lives. We were intrigued about DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) so we spoke with the person who has developed Rotary in China and made the connection into North Korea over quite a number of years, Randal Eastman. Randal was the Rotary International Representative in China until this year and we spoke with him from Shanghai. Randal explained, “Rotary in China has had a long, colourful and turbulent history. In October 1919 the first Chinese Rotary club was chartered and several followed taking the number to 43 in 39 cities. However in 1952 Rotary ceased to operate in China of its own volition - a decision taken by Rotary International. In 1996 Rotarians began meeting in Beijing regularly, and from 2006 the membership grew and clubs began to charter and in 2014 the Rotary International Board recognised new clubs in China.” 
I wanted to clear up with Randal the present situation in China in terms of people being allowed to join Rotary. He explained, “We have guidelines that the Rotary International Board has set for us and the latest version is very clear in that only ex-patriots and Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau passport holders can be members of clubs and the reason for that is not that the Chinese government have passed any specific legislation against us but our organisations are not legally registered therefore for local people to join is a bit of a danger for them. To get round this we have invited locals to be Honorary Members for about three years now and we have no problem with that.” 
To get a feel of how Rotary is working in China we had to ask how many members and clubs there are. “We have a total of 18 clubs in China with around 450 members - four of the clubs are in Beijing and three are in Shanghai,” Randal told me before then reeling o a list of other towns covering mostly the eastern part of China. There are also other clubs in various stages of formation. 
Randal had got involved with Rotary back in his native country Canada and after completing an MBA he joined the Rotary Club of London, Canada and was a member for two years before he moved to Shanghai. He told us, “Rotary was not strong in China but I was quite hooked and when I moved there were no clubs and I tried to change that.” And he has done that since his performance and the outcome speaks for itself. 
It is great that Rotary is prospering in China but we were also interested in North Korea and how people there were being helped so we ventured to find out by talking with Tom Wilkinson a member of the Rotary Club of Charlottetown Royalty on Prince Edward Island, Canada and mentioned by Randal several times. Tom explained, “It all came about when we were asked to host an agricultural delegation from DPRK. Just three delegates, and at that time they were the Director of International Trade and Economic Cooperation and Education, the Vice President of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences and a specialist involved with potato production and oilseed crops. They were all senior officers within the DPRK regime and were hosted primarily by Rotarians across clubs on Prince Edward Island. 
“The relationship and connections were developed and a request to Randal Eastman in China to supply a large solar oven for an orphanage in the Pyongyang area as well as 500 children’s wheelchairs for victims of a major explosion in Rongchang was made and met. Soon after a network was established called ‘The Korean Friendship Network’ with the help and support extending even further.” 
Tom went on to tell us about more projects, “An operating theatre in South Pyongan Province was renovated when we worked with The Rotary Club of Shanghai alongside their Rotaract club. We have a long list of giving help over a period of time working with Chinese Rotarians and the Korean Friendship Network. We packed and shipped 273,000 MannaPack Rice meals for 800 orphans in five centres. Many doubted that this aid would reach the beneficiaries however with the connection in North Korea we know the aid is getting to the right people. In 2012 after devastating typhoons and massive flooding we arranged for ShelterBox Response Teams to visit and deploy over 100 ShelterBoxes. We also worked with the Rotary International Plant Solutions Rotarian Action Group and a colleague Dr Winston Johnson produced a report on the production of food crops in North Korea.” Tom mentioned many other projects and pointed out that not only his club but Rotary clubs across Canada were instrumental in helping Randal and his colleagues in China reach out to North Korea. 
As we were going to publication we learned about the recent flooding in North Korea and wondered what help was being made available. We were told that ShelterBox is trying to make contact to assess what is required and is working with Rotarian colleagues in the region. 
In talking with Randal Eastman and Tom Wilkinson we were encouraged by the humanitarian aid getting through to North Korea through the development of Rotary in China. It demonstrates the resolve of Rotarians who want to help and the way we can use the Rotary network and fellowship to achieve this. 

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Article from Rotary Magazin (Germany)


Warmes Wasser für Waisen- kinder in Nordkorea

Noch 6250 US-Dollar fehlen 550 Kindern eines Waisenheims in Pjöngjang für die Versorgung ihres Badehauses mit warmen Wasser zum Händewaschen und Duschen

Randal Eastman (RC Shanghai) und seine rotarischen Freunde vom Korean Friend- ship Network – einer Art (inoffiziellen) Rotary Fellowship – konnten als Projektverantwortliche bislang rund 70 Prozent der nötigen Investitionssumme von 26.750 US-Dollar auf- treiben, mit denen Solar-Warmwasserbereiter auf einem der Schuldächer installiert werden sollen. Nun hofft er für den Rest auf Hilfe aus dem Ausland: „Es wäre wunderbar, wenn Rotary Clubs aus Deutschland und Österreich bereit wären, unsere Finanzierungslücke zu verkleinern und dazu beitragen, den Hygienestandard des Waisenheims zu verbesern“. In den letzten 14 Jahren haben vor allem Rotarier und Rotaracter aus der Volksrepublik China Gemeindienstprojekte in der Demokratischen Volksrepublik Korea (DVRK) durchgeführt, aber auch kanadische Clubs engagierten sich, zum Beispiel mit der Kostenübernahme für medizinische Geräte und Behandlungen sowie Hilfsmaßnahmen nach Naturkatastrophen. „Sowie wir das Geld zusammen haben, geht‘s los, wir brauchen nur acht Wochen“ verspricht Randal, der seit 2013 „RI Special Representative to China“ ist und dank vielseitigem Engagement für zahlreiche Club- Neugründungen in der Volksrepublik sorgte.

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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 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 

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 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.