In response to the food crisis of the 1990s, the Democratic People’s Repub- lic of Korea (DPRK) for the first time began to accept humanitarian assis- tance from the outside world. This opening was one of the first cracks in the hermetic seal of self-imposed isolation that the DPRK leadership had sought to impose on its people for decades. It came about as a result of desperately needed food, a situation caused by the failure of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union to provide the resource flows that had sustained the DPRK and allowed it to enjoy its relative isolation throughout the Cold War. The scarcity of food in the DPRK gave proof in the starkest possible terms to the lie of North Korea’s claimed capacity to stand as an autonomous, self-reliant actor (according to the juche ideology).
The famine became an opportunity for the establishment of new relation- ships between the DPRK and United Nations (UN) organizations such as the UN World Food Programme (UNWFP), as well as a variety of nongov- ernmental efforts to promote exchange between the two Koreas and between the DPRK and the rest of the world. The famine also provided an initial entry point and opportunity for nongovernmental humanitarian-aid workers to be catalysts for change and representatives of the good intentions of the out- side world toward North Korea’s people, who had been closed off to the outside world for many decades.
With the advent of a sustained economic boom in Asia and a shift in development assistance philosophy away from direct aid to often corrupt local governments to support through organizations with local implementa- tion capacity on the ground, the 1980s saw the rapid development of non- governmental organizations (NGOs) in a variety of roles—humanitarian, disaster relief, service provision, and technical assistance—in response to various crises around the world. The NGO community had developed over the years initially as an outgrowth of religious-based humanitarian efforts and subsequently as broader vehicles for efficient service provision through subcontracting of government-funded humanitarian and technical develop- ment efforts. Over time, organizations emerged with specialized expertise that resulted in the professionalization of service delivery, especially in the areas of humanitarian response and technical development.
These organizations developed as more effective counterparts than gov- ernments because they were able to support local efforts inside the target country by developing relationships with a variety of governmental and non- governmental organizational counterparts at the local level. The develop- ment of international NGOs as major players in humanitarian crisis response and delivery of technical services has been given a boost in recent years by the end of the Cold War and the accompanying increase in space for depoliticized nongovernmental roles and functions. The growth of NGOs has been aided as well by the trend on the part of governmental develop- ment agencies of supporting NGO service providers as effective vehicles for rapid deliveries of humanitarian and technical resources on the ground (Salamon 1994, 109–22).
The development of international NGO efforts also may be seen as part of the development of grassroots or people-to-people exchanges at the global level because much of the interaction is not necessarily constrained by gov- ernment policy, although governments as major funders of NGO efforts may indirectly influence the effectiveness of such efforts. The trend of greater space for nongovernmental activities in a sphere outside of the direct control or influence of governments is another development that has gathered speed with the end of the Cold War. These technological developments have facili- tated the creation and strengthening of issue-based virtual communities that share an interest in specific issues or developments and can organize more effectively to advocate for attention to the issues about which they are con- cerned. NGO advocacy with less regard for national borders has thus be- come one mechanism for influencing government policy, as issue-based in- terest groups organize to advocate for particular policies in line with their own organizational interests.
In South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK), the development of the NGO sector was a natural by-product of Korean democratization and develop- ment of civil society. The growth and influence of the nongovernmental sec- tor in South Korea has been a significant part of Korea’s deepening democra- tization, as nongovernmental organizations have played significant advo- cacy and service provision roles in South Korean society as part of the deep- ening of democracy. The rise of South Korean NGO involvement as part of inter-Korean relations reflects democratic changes in South Korea and has become an influential and relatively new aspect of the development of the inter-Korean relationship in recent years. The rise of South Korean NGOs has influenced the development of inter-Korean relations, and, as vehicles for expanded grassroots exchange, NGOs are likely to play an even more important and complex role in the future development of inter-Korean rela- tions in the fields of advocacy, service delivery, and grassroots exchange. This paper will attempt to draw out and highlight some of the likely roles that both international and South Korean NGOs will play in the rehabilitation of North Korea.