Rev. Tim Peters is feeding N. Korea’s hungry, and showing us how to re-think food aid

The Rev. Tim Peters, a man who embodies everything I admire about the word “Christian,” leads the group Helping Hands Korea, which has been helping North Koreans escape for more than a decade. Now, he’s putting into action what I call “guerrilla engagement,” reaching inside North Korea covertly and helping its oppressed and starved classes achieve material independence. He’s doing it by harnessing the private sotoji farms that operate on the edge of legality, and which may have saved North Korea from famine last year.

Rather than just spiriting a trickle of refugees to freedom abroad, he is also smuggling nutrient-rich vegetable seeds into North Korea, in a bold effort to provide food security for the 24.9 million people still trapped behind its barbed wire borders.

This campaign comes at a critical time. Due to some minor land reforms in the North, rural families now are allowed to cultivate tiny plots of land privately. A China-based refugee explained to him: “We have the land now, but we don’t have seeds.” [….]

Reverend Peters recalled of that time: “We sent the first batches into North Korea using various networks. Soon after that, another Catacombs member, Ed, mentioned that his grandfather bequeathed to him a chestnut orchard some time ago. I half-jokingly said: ‘Ed, are all those chestnuts just rotting on the ground when you’re over here in Korea?’ The next thing I knew, his family had sent a big box of seeds from America as a donation to our initiative. That is how The Seed Project began.”

Catacombs volunteers — a motley assortment of graduate students, English teachers, military personnel, and local high school students — now gather weekly at a small art gallery. Their goal is to repackage high-quality vegetable seeds with Korean planting instructions, while keeping up-to-date on the latest North Korea headlines. This winter, they have prepped over one thousand units. [Rachel Stine, The World Post]

I’m proud to call Rev. Peters, and several other participants in this program, my friends:

Despite the religious nature of Peters’ approach, Catacombs enjoys significant support from human rights activists on the secular left. At any given meeting, a third of the attendees are atheist or agnostic. Included in this demographic is regular attendant Craig Urquhart. A Canadian activist, Craig recently donated approximately 100 packets of organic, heirloom seeds designed to grow well in frosty climates.

“It’s not like we’re sending Bibles North,” he said. “We’re sending seeds – food – and a path to a better future. Sending seeds North is one way to help North Koreans who suffer repression by their government. It slightly reduces their dependence on the state dictatorship and it fosters food independence. There’s no negative to this kind of engagement.”

Kurt Achin, a Seoul-based journalist and Catholic supporter of the program, remarked: “I met Tim in 2004 when I came over here to report on defectors and human rights. I am a huge supporter of his quiet approach.”

My only complaint about this otherwise groundbreaking article is that it cites low estimates of the percentage of food-insecure North Koreans. According to recent U.N. reports, that number is somewhere between 70 and 84 percent. Admittedly, U.N. assessments should be treated with skepticism; they may well be skewed by both regime manipulation and the hoarding of food, including sotoji-grown food.

The obvious challenge for this program will be to stay covert and avoid the state’s domination. After more than two decades of humanitarian aid from the U.N. and various NGOs — aid that has long been subject to diversion and manipulation — North Korea is still in a chronic food crisis despite being an industrialized society in a temperate zone with more than enough cash to feed every last North Korean. And after all, how different is the weather in North Korea (perpetual food crisis) from that in South Korea (no food crisis)?

Without a doubt, regime-sanctioned aid must have helped many (but certainly not most) needy North Koreans, but it has not solved the larger food crisis, and may even be contributing to it. As Benjamin K. Silberstein writes, “Humanitarian aid is given with the best of intentions, but in the long run, by helping the North Korean regime avoid necessary policy choices, it may be harming rather than helping the North Korean population.” Or, as Nicholas Eberstadt wrote recently:

There is one final, and particularly bitter, piece in the puzzle: the role of foreign aid in financing and ultimately facilitating North Korea’s ruin. Mirror statistics reveal that the DPRK has never been self-supporting. To the contrary, it has relied on a perennial inflow of foreign resources to sustain itself. Since 1960, North Korea has reportedly received more than $60 billion (in today’s dollars) more merchandise from abroad than it has shipped overseas. Nearly $45 billion of that came from Beijing and Moscow—a figure we can treat as a rough approximation of total Chinese and Soviet/Russian financial support.

Why didn’t these massive transfers result in any appreciable measure of long-term economic advancement? The work of economists Craig Burnside, David Dollar and Lant Pritchett, published in the late 1990s under the aegis of the World Bank, suggests an answer: Aid can have a negative effect on growth when a recipient state has a bad business climate, because foreign subsidies allow the regime, in the short term, to escape the consequences of its misrule. In such cases, the greater the volume of aid, the bigger the harm.

Unfortunately, North Korea’s horrific economic performance was enabled in part by leaders abroad who sent billions of dollars to Pyongyang. Those resources allowed the Kim dynasty to continue policies so patently destructive that they would have been forced to cease, or at least to moderate, them absent subsidy from overseas.

International aid workers and humanitarian policy makers have always feared that foreign assistance, through cascading mishaps, might leave recipients poorer and worse off in the end. [Wall Street Journal]

If Helping Hands can keep operating below the state’s radar, it can be a small beginning for a series of far greater things. With material independence comes intellectual independence. If you want to donate to Helping Hands Korea, here’s a link.

5 Comments

  1. What a brilliant idea. And subtly subversive to boot. It illustrates the failure of the regime to meet their citizens’ most basic needs, and the desire of the outside world to help. And can the regime really crack down on seeds?

    It also got me wondering: could seeds be transported into North Korea via balloon, as leaflets have been?

  2. I’m glad you draw attention to the fact that we should be addressing some of the root causes of perennial malnutrition in North Korea. A handful of humanitarian organizations have been working on improving agricultural practices and vegetable seed availability inside the country for 15 years but they often hesitate to draw attention to these efforts. The overwhelming sentiment in the U.S has been towards providing only immediate “life-saving” assistance like food handouts; any activities that address the longer-term need of improving agriculture in the country are often criticized as “propping up” the North Korean regime. Yet if we are truly interested in the well-being of ordinary North Korean people, we should be supporting responsible efforts to improve crop and vegetable production, especially in smaller towns and rural communities.

    Also, the document your reference related to “diversion and manipulation” is 12 years old and doesn’t include evidence of diversion. It cites examples from the late 1990s of restrictions on monitoring. The environment has changed considerably since then. Just as you use a recent example of good humanitarian assistance, we should look at look at current operating conditions rather than relying on old information.

  3. Thanks for the shoutout.

    This is just one angle in a huge range of projects, but it’s a great angle, and Tim Peters is tireless. There are few as dedicated as he is.

  4. Thanks, Josh! Your words of encouragement and endorsement are greatly appreciated. I have deep admiration for YOUR good work!
    Rachel, Craig and Kurt have helped so much to get this up on the radar screen!
    Tim

  5. The truth is lots of the north korean refugees in south korea want to back their home again.

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