The United Nations Development Program, the U.N.’s premier development body, is again demonstrating stunningly poor judgment. For those who don’t know the history, information provided by whistleblowers to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations led the U.S. to question UNDP about its practices and activities in North Korea. Based on the information it received, the U.S. initiated an investigation that revealed numerous UNDP violations of U.N. rules and regulations and led the UNDP executive board to suspend its activities in North Korea in March 2007. An independent audit commissioned by UNDP and released in May 2008 confirmed “how routinely, and systematically, the agency disregarded U.N. regulations on how it conducted itself in Kim Jong-Il’s brutal dictatorship, passing on millions of dollars to the regime in the process.”
Earlier this year, UNDP announced that it would return to North Korea after securing promises from the DPRK government that it would permit UNDP to operate in a manner that would comply with the U.N. rules and regulations that it had previously ignored.
Since that decision, North Korea has demonstrated its disdain for the U.N. by ignoring the directives of its most powerful body, the U.N. Security Council, regarding its nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missiles programs. Moreover, despite the fact that estimates by the World Food Program indicate that over a third of the North Korean population is dependent on food aid, North Korea has increasingly restricted the ability of humanitarian organizations to operate in the country. In March 2009, the North Korean government abruptly informed the U.S. that it would no longer accept food assistance and ordered five non-governmental organizations involved in distributing the food aid to leave the country. In June 2009, North Korea further constrained the ability of the World Food Program to monitor U.N. food distribution, expelled Korean-speaking employees of WFP, and ordered WFP and the U.N. Children’s Fund to cease operations in parts of the country.
Yet, in typical U.N. style, UNDP continues with its plans to restore its DRPK activities and WFP and UNICEF seemingly are content to allow North Korea to trim their activities to serve its agenda.
The barbaric indifference of the North Korean government to the suffering of its own people should lead the U.N. to pull out of North Korea all together. In other repressive regimes, the U.N. and NGOs can sometimes work around the government to help the people directly. In these cases, there is some justification for continuing U.N. humanitarian activities. There is little basis for this approach in North Korea. The regime controls virtually all international humanitarian activities. Despite the best efforts of the U.N. and other providers of humanitarian assistance, aid to North Korea is only permitted if it benefits the regime. The U.S. should press for complete suspension of these programs until the North Korea government agrees to permit them to operate in a manner that does not impede their humanitarian mission.
– Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation and editor of Conundrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives.