Walking the Road to Hell With the Eugene Bell Foundation

I want to begin this post with a correction.   On  October 29th, commenter  Marion Spina, referring to the  seventh “See Also” item in this post,  said:

Question on your post: “I’m suspicious of the Eugene Bell foundation, because it recently received a “frienship” medal from the North Korean government, and because you don’t win Kim Jong Il’s friendship by asking hard questions and without paying for it. Based on this document, I infer that the Bell foundation is having some success at convincing Democrats in Congress, particularly Carl Levin, to start a U.S. counterpart to the “family reunions” that South Korea does.

I contacted Eugene Bell’s principal to find out about this friendship medal. He said this is the first he’s heard of it. Can you advise where that idea came from?  [link]

Certain of my memory of the fact I asserted but possessed of limited time, it took me until now to find the article that was the basis of my recollection.  Unfortunately,  it looks like I may have confused Eugene Bell (who passed away generations ago) with the late Ellsworth Culver of Mercy Corps.  Thanks to  Marion Spina for catching the error.  I note that  one other  blog picked up  my original  quote, and I’ve e-mailed that blogger to ask him to link the correction as well.  I strive to be accurate here, so I offer my sincere apologies to all readers (those still reading after my long hiatus, that is) for not meeting that standard on that occasion.

I have described my view of the Eugene Bell Foundation as “suspicious,” and  although  my view is unchanged by further research, “deeply ambivalent” would  be a better way to describe it.  A narrow-angle focus on EBF’s activities reveals that it has done many good things for many North Korean people.  The wide-angle view, however, shows silence about, support for, and effective enablement of  the regime’s  most ruthless policies,  all of which  probably outweighs the good EBF does on the micro scale. 

Stephen Linton, EBF’s Chairman, has a very long and interesting history in Korea, primarily in South Cheolla Province.   Linton’s great-grandfather and the namesake of his foundation arrived in Korea in 1895, and various descendants of the family have established hundreds of churches there since.  Linton grew up in South Korea and speaks Korean fluently, which makes him a rarity among foreign aid workers (North Korea generally doesn’t  allow Korean-speaking aid workers  and assigns  all workers  government “translators”).  As a child, Linton contracted tuberculosis,  which was widespread  in South Korea  through the 1970’s.  This may explain why TB clinics in North Korea have been a primary  focus of EBF’s efforts. 

EBF’s relationship with the North Korean regime certainly is not the tense, adversarial  kind that most NGO’s report.  EBF was even  the object of a “surprise reception” by the North Korean Ministry of Public Health,  something that  must be a fairly unique experience among NGO’s working in North Korea.  Part of this must be  because EBF does worthy things, such as  providing training and services to combat tuberculosis, mostly in northwestern North Korea.  This much is unreservedly commendable.  Medical services are much less vulnerable to diversion than cash or bulk food aid, and the fact that the patients are also afflicted by a tyrant’s misrule does not make this aid any less commendable.  I can hardly think of a better way to aid the North Korean people under the present, highly controlled circumstances than to help treat the sick. 

Another part of the regime’s  approval of EBF is almost certainly because  it likes EBF’s politics.  The EBF really just started to expand its work in North Korea after other  NGO’s, including Medicins Sans Frontieres,  accused the regime of denying it access to those in greatest need and left.  Linton first visited North Korea in 1979,  during a time of extreme tensions,  with Billy Graham.  Wikipedia claims that Linton met with the late Kim Il Sung twice,  as Graham’s translator.   North Korea certainly treated any meeting with the Kims as great privileges, and you’d think that the  North Korean government had translators of its own.  You may say, “So what?  Does that make that Billy Graham  a North Korean shill, too?”   A prop, perhaps, but not a shill.   And the comparison is inapposite.  Graham,  unlike Linton,  was famous enough that  Kim Il Sung served his own propaganda and diplomatic  interests by meeting him. 

In Linton’s case, the North Korean regime gained something else —  an academically brilliant, knowledgeable, and  exceptionally articulate apologist with the capacity to reach influential audiences,  including the U.S. Congress.   Here, for example, is how Linton weaves his way toward justifying North Korea’s nuclear weapons program amid the largest famine of the last quarter-century:

Faith in fairness is essential to justify the risks of opening a closed economy to international trade, and North Korea’s leadership has never believed in a world governed by fair play. Instead, they believe that nature as well as history has created a world of national ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ In this view, because the world’s natural resources are unequally distributed in favor of larger nations, smaller nations have to rely on diplomacy and influence (pressure) to acquire what they need. Not surprisingly, all their energies are exerted in acquiring the leverage needed to force foreign powers to take them seriously.

Sadly, North Korea’s perspective and suspicions regarding international affairs seem to be confirmed by the strong support for US-led sanctions. In the North Korean way of thinking, sanctions ‘prove ‘ that the economic playing field will never be level enough to permit their products to compete in the international arena. When seen from this perspective, North Korea’s international and domestic policies are relatively easy to understand.  [Testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, June 5, 2003]

Some policies, of course, are easier to understand than others, and mostly absent from Linton’s “explanations” are North Korea’s suffocating repression, its hellish concentration camps, and of greatest relevance for Linton’s work, its culpable misallocation of food which, according to various estimates, killed between half a million and  three and a half  million people.  Like other defenders of the regime, Linton views sanctions in a vacuum, without mentioning the acts of terrorism and proliferation that led to them, its stubborn refusal to convincingly renounce those methods, or its compulsion for turning  plowshares into thrust-vector nozzles.  Is nothing Kim Jong Il’s fault?  If so, Linton isn’t saying.

The EBF even stood by Kim Jong Il’s horrendous  2005 decision to reject  further aid from the World Food Program (WFP), at a time when 37%  of  North Koreans were  chronically malnourished and 7% were starving.  (A few months later, Kim Jong Il relented slightly and allowed a dramatically downsized program.)   Here are some extended quotes from Linton’s defense, published in the L.A. Times on October 29, 2005 (only excerpts are available on line):

LONG KNOWN for surprises, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — better known as North Korea — again shocked the international humanitarian aid community when it announced recently that it wouldn’t accept any more emergency food aid.This edict was accompanied by a request that the U.N. World Food Program, which has been shipping hundreds of thousands of tons of food to North Korea, shift to “development aid” and withdraw the food monitors charged with making sure food goes to those who really need it.

Actually, no one should have been surprised. After all, this is the 10th year since the international community responded to Pyongyang’s call for help with one of the largest emergency aid programs in history. From the beginning, North Koreans made it clear that international aid was welcome, but only until they were able to do without it. Numbers have a particular significance in Korean culture, and anything that lasts over 10 years has the odor of permanency.

Apparently, North Korea has decided that it’s time for a change. And I agree.

First, contrary to the claim that more than 6 million North Koreans might starve if international aid dries up, there is no food emergency in North Korea today. For two years after the 1995 floods that triggered the famine, countless displaced persons wandered the countryside in a desperate search for something to eat. Some went to China, precipitating the international community’s belated interest in North Korean refugees. Most border traffic today is about trade, not hunger.

Since 1998, things have been slowly improving. Life is still very tough in North Korea and is likely to remain so for some time. Still, this fall, North Koreans are again flooding into the countryside, not to search for food but to gather one of the best harvests in years.  [Linton in the L.A. Times]

Here, Linton  distorts the truth.  The 2005 harvest  was a slight improvement over previous years, but  U.N. Food and Agriculture Office statistics show that North Korea still had a substantial food deficit that year.  According to an October 2005  report by Don Kirk of the Christian Science Monitor, quoting the WFP’s Richard Ragan, the 2005 harvest produced just 4.2 million tons of cereals, far less than the 6 million tons the people needed.   Linton must have known that without international aid, the food emergency would return as soon as  whatever stocks the people had put aside ran out.  North Korea  never recovered its food self-sufficiency after the famine, and after the slight increases in food production in 2004 and  2005,  harvests plunged again in 2006 and 2007.   By December of 2006, U.N. agencies, including the WFP, were warning of a new food crisis.  They repeated the warnings in March of 2007.  And that was even before the latest floods  destroyed much of this year’s crop.

Second, far more help is available today should North Korea ever need emergency aid again. When Pyongyang dialed 911 in 1995, the phone rang in Geneva and New York, and it took months for the first large shipments of international aid to arrive, too late to help many people. One official told me at the time: “We are very grateful for international assistance. Still, one ton two months ago would have been more welcome than 10 tons today.”  [Linton]

The opposite is true.  North Korea’s  rejection of monitored aid in 2005  destroyed donor nations’ confidence and severed the lifelines on which millions of its people had come to — yes —  depend

Partly because of funding cuts, the WFP delivered 15,000 tons of food aid to North Korea last year, down from 1 million tons in 2001. The U.N. agency’s budget for North Korea has received only 18 percent of required funds for the current budget cycle, the lowest level of funding for this time of year since 1997, de Margerie said.

“When the political situation is tense and not harmonious … it doesn’t create a conducive environment for donors to come forward to pledge support, even if it’s purely humanitarian,” he said in a telephone interview from Pyongyang.  Bilateral aid has also plummeted: Food shipments from China and South Korea ““ in 2005 North Korea’s top food donors ““ plunged last year.  The United States cut all food assistance to North Korea in 2005 because officials suspected that food was being given to the military or sold on the black market, a State Department spokesman said.  [Cox News Service]


One in three North Korean children are already chronically malnourished, stunting their growth,  [WFP Spokesman Simon Pluess] said. Foreign assistance for Pyongyang has fallen sharply after the Stalinist government restricted aid agencies’ access, the agencies said.  The WFP is feeding only 700,000 of the 1.9 million North Koreans it has identified as needing food aid. This was because it received just 15 percent of the $102 million it sought for the country this year, Pluess said.

Breaks in the “aid pipeline”, which are already affecting vulnerable people, including mothers and children, are “expected to be progressively worse through the harsh North Korean winter unless adequate resources are committed immediately,” he said.  “The situation is likely to translate into increased malnutrition rates,” Pluess said. Analysts believe North Korea cannot produce enough food for itself even in the best crop years, and much of the food is diverted to the military.  [Reuters, via Relief Web]

The World Food Program’s loss of access to the people it was feeding has had a more enduring effect than  the meager bounty of 2005.  More than two-thirds of the 6.5 million  North Koreans who depended on the WFP in 2005 have since been cut off, due to a combination of the regime’s restrictions and the donor fatigue this brought on.   It’s difficult to even estimate how the loss of that aid affected its former recipients.   With this year’s floods, their  need for the now-severed channels of international aid has almost certainly risen.  The North Korean people may continue to pay the price for Kim Jong Il’s isolationist obsession for years to come.   

In 1995, the delay was the result of having to ship food halfway around the world. At the time, South Korean President Kim Young Sam not only refused to send food to feed his fellow Koreans, he did his best to dissuade foreigners from helping, hoping that starvation would spark regime change in the North.  [Linton]

But nothing is Kim Jong Il’s fault.  Not even this

Today, relations are vastly improved. South Korean governmental and charitable organizations are supplying the bulk of aid to North Korea. If Pyongyang ever needs emergency food again, it can dial 119 (South Korea’s emergency number) and the phone will ring in Seoul. South Koreans could get food to hungry North Koreans so fast they would make FEMA blush with envy.  [Linton]

They could, and because  South Korean aid is virtually unmonitored, we know how that would end.

Third, continued dependence on the international community for food security would retard serious economic reform. Emergency aid can save lives in times of crises, but it is a poor foundation for long-term development, something North Koreans have known all along. As another official told me in 1997: “We have seen what happens when nations become permanent wards of the international community for their food security, and we want none of it. We believe in juche [self-reliance.]” It’s unwise and impolitic for the U.N. or others to beg Pyongyang to accept food. North Korea is highly suspicious of the motives of outsiders who offer humanitarian “carrots” in hopes of coaxing it to open up — let alone make concessions on its nuclear programs or human rights.  [Linton]

No nation on earth is less interested in economic reform than North Korea.  In their book, “Famine in North Korea,” Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard convincingly argue that North Korea never intentionally even experimented with reform.  Any marketization of its economy was from the bottom up, driven by individuals who acted out of hunger and desperation.  Once North Korea regained the capacity to do so, it crushed emerging markets.  It’s still crushing them today.  The ultimate showpiece of economic reform, the Kaesong Industrial Park, seems designed above all to extract subsidies from South Korea (since most of its enterprises are still unprofitable) while keeping the workers isolated from South Koreans and their ideas.

It remains to be seen whether Pyongyang will continue to strive for self-sufficiency in agriculture (difficult under the best of circumstances because of a cold climate and hilly terrain) or opt for an export economy like in South Korea, which imports 60% of its food. Either way, North Korea’s only real chance to get ahead is to wean itself from international welfare and find an economic niche in the most competitive neighborhood on the planet.

Finally, continued international emergency assistance is bad for Korean reunification.  [Linton]

This is an odd twist.  How many times have supporters of “engagement” at any price told  us that aid and subsidies channeled through South Korea’s Ministry of Unification were bringing us toward unification?  We are thus left with one consistency:   support for whatever the Dear Leader wants, on his terms.  One wonders whether Linton is equally fastidious about the billions in aid South Korea provides directly to Kim Jong Il’s regime, including the amounts it may be diverting to its weapons program (while U.S. troops continue to defend South Korea from that threat). 

If food aid does not reach the North Koreans who need it most, who will be left to reunify with?

As the last half-century of history proves, Koreans are far more dangerous divided than united. And it has become increasingly obvious to the international community that such problems as nuclear nonproliferation, human rights and economic development in North Korea can only be addressed with South Korea’s help.The breathtaking pace of North-South rapprochement is making many people in Washington nervous, and some fear that too much chumminess on the Korean Peninsula will interfere with more important concerns, such as making North Korea give up its nuclear programs. Exactly the opposite is true. Korea would be much less of a headache for everyone if North and South were more dependent on each other — even if it meant being less dependent on everybody else.  [Linton]

This is a defense of the indefensible.  Kim Jong Il’s decision to reject food aid was a choice to starve innocents, made with  malice aforethought.   He made it to spite the World Food Program and other NGOs’ demands for better access to those in greatest need, and better monitoring of who received the aid. 

EBF’s support for this  proliferation of misery  must have lent  it  far more credibility than it deserved, and  may well have helped blunt what should have been an international outcry.  We will probably never know how many people were  starved or how many children were stunted by that decision.  Such unqualified support for the regime also hurt other NGOs’ efforts demand better monitoring, access, and distribution.   North Korea has used relatively more compliant NGO’s like EBF to undercut the demands of others for better access.  This is the kind of uncoordinated response to aid that Marcus Noland and Stephen Haggard termed “a race to the bottom.” 

[Since I’m fisking a two year-old article, I should be fair enough to admit that some of my own forecasts about the effect of Kim Jong Il’s expulsion of the WFP now seem  too alarmist.  I may have underestimated the resilience of a surviving  stock of  half-starved people who’ve learned to  hoard  what they can gather and  live on next-to-nothing.  It’s one of those occasions when I can express relief  at being  wrong, but today, the food situation is deteriorating rapidly and the international aid effort has been set back by a decade.   Who doubts that my  worst fears could still be redeemed?]

Lately, EBF has raised its political profile by campaigning for family reuinions between North Korean-born  Americans citizens and their relatives in the homeland.   This campaign has gained political traction with the ascendancy of the Democrats in Congress.  We can already suppose that these interviews  will be as tightly controlled as they have been with South Koreans.  No one should enter such an arrangement under any illusions about opportunities to catch up and converse freely.   “Hostage interviews” might be a better way to describe them.  And if it were my relatives trapped inside North Korea, I’d do it anyway, just to see them. 

But as one who  believes that  saving all of  the North  Korean people matters more than anesthetizing the agony of a few of them,  what I think about this depends entirely on one question:  how much money will the regime make from this, so as to prolong the oppression?  If the amount were no more than needed to cover  some expenses, it would fit my definition of “good engagement,” meaning contact between the people rather than yet another way to perpetuate the regime.  I put that question to an acquaintance who works for EBF; the answer I received was a “why would we?” response, but not exactly a denial, either.  And history suggests that  North Korea will demand and  get a price for this.  In a sense,  it will be a  ransom that’s renewable as long as the hostage lives.

Just as in another sense, the regime uses its entire starving population as hostages.  The choices we are offered are to ignore their misery or prolong it.