ILC2021-7 Session 3 - Intervention of Mr. Thomas Fisler

Good afternoon everybody.

I have had the honour or the privilege to live and work for four years in North Korea between 2013 and 2017, and I'm going to talk today about the humanitarian programme or, to be more precise, about the expectation for a possible new start after the COVID-19 pandemic. I think this is highly relevant, as everyone knows that currently the entire country is in a total lockdown; nothing is going in or out.

So, let me say a few things about the persisting humanitarian needs. They are actually worsening. As of 2019, 10 million people in North Korea, which is about 40% of the population, are undernourished or malnourished. Eventually, all the humanitarian organisations left the DPRK in early 2020, due to the pandemic situation. International humanitarian aid, which was, up to 2019, around 50 million per year was reduced to a few million dollars in 2020, and is currently at zero.

No UN agency, no INGO, no-one is currently in the country, so that means humanitarian monitoring also ceased to exist. The DPRK's or the North Korean lockdown measures are impacting the lives of ordinary people more than any externally imposed sanctions have in the past. However, the fact is, in rural areas, people live on subsistence. No or very marginal improvements were visible outside Pyongyang, even in pre-COVID 19 times. The existing private market economy, though key to people’s survival, has been impacted by the draconian measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. People aren't allowed to travel right now. They weren't allowed to at that time, but even more so now, they are not able to travel from A to B. The daily struggle for their livelihood doesn't allow them even to consider their situation. They actually don't know how bad things are. But it needs to be said that people are extremely resilient and remain absolutely loyal; no criticism or questions are noticed.

So, what is the current situation right now? North Korea closed its borders in January 2020. it was the first country in the world to do so, to protect itself against the virus. Since then, no importation of humanitarian assistance has been possible. Food imports, international staff deployment, physical monitoring, access, may likely remain curtailed for a long period. Some people estimate, and I would partly share that opinion, that North Korea will not open its borders before 2023. In the event of a crisis, it is also assumed, and it has happened in the past, that China may assist with shipments of some cereals. The WFP (World Food Program), which was vital in supporting children under five with additional nutritional support, ceased its operations also in 2020. The DPRK or North Korea still insists that they haven't seen any COVID-19 cases. There are some experts that suggest that this is unlikely. There must be some pockets of corona cases, but I think they were well isolated.

There are just a few foreigners from some embassies remaining in the country, but they are bound to stay in Pyongyang, and they have no way or means of travelling to look at the situation outside Pyongyang. As a means to reverse some of the more liberal attitudes in the past years, which I experienced in my time, the COVID-19 containment measures, such as the rules involving economic activities and travel, as well as imports of fish in border and coastal areas, which had a high impact in the past, are now no more possible.

The situation is such that, as a consequence of the self-imposed isolation, and along with that, a kind of ideological re-education is currently also noticed from the media reports coming out of North Korea. They are trying to encourage the highest possible degree of self-reliance and have increased their restrictive measures, such as restrictions on private market economy, language, and so on. So, reaching those in most need will have to be negotiated all over again. it was possible to do so up until 2019, but all these ties, all these connexions, all these means, have ceased to exist.

UN organisations should maintain open channels with the respective North Korean missions abroad, should maintain a dialogue and discuss about humanitarian assistance. I think this is very important. Travelling will most likely be impacted by quarantine time, be it in China or in North Korea, so all of this will contribute to a very difficult process.

Office infrastructure, logistics, cars, all has been left behind, and no one is taking care of it, or very few of these premises. The compounds, the offices, hardware equipment, IT, Internet access, cars, local staff, all of this needs to be built up from scratch again, and that will be a big task, almost bigger than in the 90’s. We will have to keep in mind that no financial ties exist with North Korea, so international staff will have to bring in foreign cash, U.S. dollars, euros, and so on, to start minimal functioning.

Renegotiating the access will be key and gaining information on what is happening in rural areas will be key and will be all the same the biggest challenge. So, these are the things which we currently consider, and which make any humanitarian intervention in North Korea very, very difficult for the moment. We can do nothing more than wait until the border opens, and then hopefully the government will allow us to bring in some assistance.

I think this is very important. The UN agencies could be at the forefront. INGOs should re-establish their offices and NGOs can also find ways and means to provide support to the people. I think it is essential to keep in mind that all of this is needed in order to build up relations and to work towards a better understanding and better opening for the people in North Korea, who otherwise have zero information on what happens outside their borders.

So, with these few points I'm making today I would like for this to be given some thought and thank you for the opportunity to express a few words to the audience in this conference. Thank you very much.

In response to a question as to when he thinks North Korea will open up its borders and what may happen then, Mr. Fisler gave the following reply.

As mentioned above, there are different opinions, but I believe that North Korea will only open its borders once the pandemic is truly over across the world. So, we can expect that no assistance will move into the country for the next one or two years at least and, in the beginning, I believe North Korea will only allow humanitarian goods. International staff will follow at a later stage. So, we will have to provide some goods and we will have to assume that the situation, including child nutrition, especially in rural areas, has worsened since 2019. So, any humanitarian support is actually a totally new restart from zero. There's no presence, there's no logistics, so we'll have to start from scratch.

So, what could be the opportunities and the way forward? We will have to accept the prevailing logistical conditions and whatever rules or regulations the government imposes. The start will be minimal. I'm very sure of that. Providing medical equipment and hardware, even thinking of COVID 19 vaccines, is certainly one of the priorities, though I believe that the nutritional status of the children is more urgent than having the entire nation vaccinated with COVID-19 vaccines. What would be important is for the expatriate staff from INGOs and so on to be able to move into the country at the given time; it will be very important to have highly experienced people, who have been working previously in the country, who have been recognised by the government and trusted. I think confidence and trust is the keyword in building up or continue to have good relations, which would allow us to do some humanitarian work in the country. So, anyone who has the opportunity to send international staff should keep that in mind. One has to keep in mind as well that at the time when humanitarian assistance is needed in North Korea, there will be a worldwide search for the assistance required due to the pandemic worldwide. Therefore, we will have good reasons to assume that funding for North Korea isn't going to be a high priority. So, reopening the humanitarian operational space will be a cumbersome process.

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