Humanitarians in the Hermit Kingdom: NGOs, Aid, and Access in the DPRK


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date22 Jan 2019


Since 1995, at least 236 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have delivered humanitarian and development aid projects to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea). Issues of access are paramount, as the North Korean state controls which NGOs can enter the country, where they can work, what kind of projects they can conduct, and the amount of contact they can have with aid recipients. Using interviews conducted with former and current aid workers, primary documents from NGOs, and literature on the DPRK and humanitarianism, this dissertation explores the factors that influence NGOs’ ability to gain and maintain access in the North Korean context.

NGO and DPRK perceptions of three main factors interact to determine access: constructive relationships, approaches to project design, and the value of aid. Organisations from adversarial backgrounds, such as Americans, South Koreans, and religious adherents, have additional considerations such as politics and NGO motives, but have still been able to engage in significant numbers. Over time and with patience, NGOs can build strong partnerships with their North Korean counterparts that can facilitate their projects. NGOs must be flexible when designing their projects, particularly in their approaches to activities like needs assessments, monitoring, and evaluation. Whether an organisation is satisfied with the limits and opportunities inherent in working in the DPRK is largely dependent on the NGO’s stance on key concepts within aid, such as vulnerability and diversion. The DPRK can perceive aid as beneficial for its financial value, sector, and humanitarian or development focus. Food aid was initially considered a priority project area, but since the end of the famine of the mid-1990s health and agriculture projects have become more popular. Other sectors, like education and energy, have more limited opportunities due to both North Korean priorities and NGO willingness to engage. Greater flexibility, patience, and a willingness to build genuine partnerships have allowed some NGOs to build decades-long relationships and projects. NGOs with more rigid operating procedures or mandates are unlikely to find satisfactory working conditions inside the DPRK.

    Research areas

  • Aid, NGOs, North Korea, DPRK