Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Evaluating the Scope of People-to-People Engagement in North Korea, 1995-2012

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Evaluating the Scope of People-to-People Engagement in North Korea, 1995-2012

Article excerpt

IN 2014, THE TOP NEWS STORIES RELATED TO THE DEMOCRATIC PeOple's Republic of Korea (DPRK) included the following: Dennis Rodman's basketball diplomacy in the DPRK; the imprisonment of three US citizens; the six-week public absence of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un; and the cyberattack launched against Sony studios prior to the release of the film, The Interview. The portrayal of North Korea in the media further reified popular stereotypes about the isolated country as a bizarre and belligerent nation.

Underneath such caricatures, however, is an aspect of North Korea that has attracted far less attention from the public: peopleto-people engagement between foreign actors and North Koreans. Relying on an original data set and interviews with nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers, business experts, academics, and other practitioners with experience working inside the DPRK, I reveal basic trends related to people-to-people engagement in areas such as humanitarian relief, development assistance, educational assistance, professional training, and business interaction. What is the size and scope of foreign engagement in North Korea? What types of activities do NGOs, businesses, and other private actors conduct? How have foreigners managed to operate inside the DPRK and what obstacles do they face? What has been the experience and impact (if any) of those working inside the DPRK? Much of our knowledge to date has relied on case studies and anecdotal evidence. In contrast, I rely on data from the Engage DPRK Mapping Initiative to provide a more systematic overview of engagement activities in the DPRK over time.

This article is organized into four sections. I begin by summarizing what the existing literature reveals about foreign engagement and people-to-people interaction inside North Korea. Much of what we know about such interactions derives from the experience of NGO workers and other practitioners who entered North Korea following the 1995 famine. I then introduce the Engage DPRK Mapping Initiative and present data that reveal macro-level trends about the nature and scope of foreign engagement. Next, I provide additional analysis from interviews with sixteen practitioners who have worked inside the DPRK, and highlight the limitations, priorities, and different standards of success when operating in the country. In my conclusion, I offer several policy observations and consider the potential implications of people-to-people engagement in the DPRK, particularly in light of tightened UN sanctions against North Korea.

Filling the Knowledge Gap on People-to-People Engagement

The term engagement implies one or more actors' actively reaching out to another actor with the intent of bringing about positive change in a relationship. Such change may be marked by increased mutual understanding, improved attitudes, updated beliefs and perceptions, and/or a shift in policy. Actors may pursue different types of engagement. Diplomatic engagement is generally limited to interaction between government officials. Economic engagement opens avenues for businesses and civil societal groups to reach out to their respective counterparts.

In contrast to formal, bilateral diplomatic engagement, I focus on people-to-people engagement taking place inside the DPRK, primarily between nonstate foreign actors and local DPRK counterparts (Lee 2009). Ideally, engagement should function as a twoway process requiring some degree of reciprocity. However, given that engagement is more of a means than an end, at the outset, engagement may be initiated on a unilateral basis (Resnick 2001).

Engagement Activities: A Review

Existing accounts related to engagement activities inside the DPRK unsurprisingly come from the experiences of United Nations and NGO workers. Organizations such as the Korea NGO Council for Cooperation with North Korea (KNCCK) based in South Korea, the Hanns Seidel Foundation in Germany, and the UN Development Program (UNDP) have helped facilitate information sharing among organizations interested in pursuing engagement-related work inside the DPRK. …

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