Path to Inter-Korean Development Cooperation

Ranking as 15th largest donor on the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2021, South Korea has been one of the promising donors which adheres to the humanitarian-based global development norm. This is visible from the increase in humanitarian aid from South Korea to the Global South. However, by contrast, South Korean humanitarian aid to North Korea has dramatically declined since 2007 despite the intensifying humanitarian issues—which are assumed to be more severe due to COVID-19 and climate change impact.

Aid as a Diplomatic Tool

This disparity is primarily driven by the unique diplomatic relations between North and South Korea, fluctuating depending on security, political, and diplomatic affairs. In terms of the inter-Korean relationship, typically, while the Left-regimes have been more devoted to enhancing the diplomatic relationship with Pyongyang, often aligning with humanitarian aid provision, the Right-regimes have had the tendency to be harsher on humanitarian aid prioritizing instead the security issue.

In this sense, humanitarian aid from South to North has been used as diplomatic tool regardless of the regime being liberal or conservative. In the same vein, North Korea has selectively approved the development cooperation and humanitarian assistance offered by South Korea, based on its foreign policy strategy. The Kaesong Industrial Complex repeatedly opened and shut down based on the diplomatic situation between the two Koreas, can be seen as a representative example of how the inter-Korean economic cooperation has worked. Neither development cooperation nor humanitarian aid flows between the two Koreas has been long-term or persistent. Furthermore, the South Korean development agency, the South Korean agency for international cooperation (KOICA), which controls national development cooperation projects, has had a limited role in systemic development cooperation with North Korea since North Korea is not legally recognized as a sovereign state. In this sense, inter-Korean aid and development collaboration could not but be more focused on providing immediate humanitarian assistance than on long-term development cooperation—which has rather been influenced by diplomatic relations or used as political leverage.

The new development cooperation initiative for North Korea from the Yoon Suk-yeol regime, the ‘audacious plan’ is a comprehensive development cooperation and humanitarian aid kit, including large-scale food aid, power generation, infrastructure building, modernization of port and airport, and in the health sector. Despite the promising proposal, however, its actual feasibility is presumably low. This is mainly due to the precondition for the North to stop developing nuclear weapons and making substantial progress on denuclearization, which is hardly negotiable for North Korea. As witnessed though Lee Myeong-bak’s “Vision 3000: Denuclearization  and Openness” Plan, consisting of development assistance provision as a trade-off for denuclearization efforts, the new plan is unlikely to bring about substantial change when related to denuclearization. In this regard, the new plan can be regarded as another short-term political propaganda in the name of humanitarian assistance and development cooperation.

Rising Challenges and Aid Requirements

Although information regarding the humanitarian situation in North Korea is severely limited, the international community has been concerned over the worsening situation, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been estimated that the economic impact of COVID-19 is as severe as the impact of UN sanctions, as all types of capital and product inflows, including non-sanctioned products and international aid had been banned due to the border closure. This led to a change in the exchange rate and price increases that correspondingly deteriorates not only food security but also the formal and informal economy.

Furthermore, the impact of climate change is expected to be intensified with expectedly more typhoons, flooding, and droughts in the near future. Combined with the COVID-19-driven economic and social effect, natural disasters would deteriorate health and sanitation, food security, and other human security issues. The 2021 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate emphasized that “North Korea’s poor infrastructure and resource management probably will weaken its ability to cope with increased flooding and droughts, exacerbating the country’s chronic food shortages.” 

Despite the severity of the situation, humanitarian aid and development cooperation for North Korea has been challenging not only with South Korea but also with the rest of the world due to the existing UN sanctions. Moreover, there is potential for further UN sanctions in response to the North’s recent missile tests. Although both bilateral and multilateral aid have never been stopped, aid disbursements have fluctuated and it has been noticeably decreasing. UN agencies report that the disparity between the aid North Korea requires and what they received has been increasing since 2012. Nevertheless, the international society’s efforts on sending aid will continue regardless of the sanctions or nuclear weapons development of the North Korean regime.

Changing the South Korean Approach

South Korea has sought to become a mature donor, pursuing efforts to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity under the SDGs framework. KOICA has not only been recognized as a big donor but also for its professionalism in development cooperation. As a global norm-adhering donor, however, South Korea should start to transform its perspective toward North Korea and consider it an important development cooperation partner, by turning the uniqueness of the inter-Korean relationship and challenges for development cooperation into opportunities. Accordingly, the development cooperation strategy for North Korea should go beyond the political rhetoric. Rather, it should be more feasible, practical, and persistent.   

The first steps could be formal and/or informal information gathering and sharing on humanitarian situations in North Korea. It can be initiated through international development institutions and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), which have been relatively more persistent in cooperation with North Korea for humanitarian assistance and development cooperation based on their political neutrality. While the key UN entities include the UN Developmental Program, the UN Refugee Agency, the UN Children’s Fund, and the World Food Program, there have been resident and non-resident European NGOs, such as Red Cross and Concern Worldwide that have worked in North Korea.

Furthermore, South Korea can focus more on participating or facilitating multilateral cooperation partnership not only for effective humanitarian relief, but also for further development cooperation. For example, considering that North Korea has increasingly revealed its hardship in dealing with the devastating impact of natural disasters and requested for international assistance, there can be a potential to commence multilateral partnerships for disaster/crisis management. Beyond food aid, multilateral partnerships in disaster management will bring long-term outcomes, collaborating with North Korea in a more systemic way. As the partnership will be less influenced by the bilateral diplomatic relationship between two Koreas, multilateral partnership can more be feasible and stable, bringing about more opportunities for development cooperation.

At the domestic level, institutional adjustment for better inter-Korean development cooperation should be pursued. As North Korea is not recognized as a sovereign state by the South’s constitution, humanitarian aid has been handled by the Ministry of Unification. Although there was a law-revision attempt of article 12 in 2017, KOICA still has had a limited role in terms of development cooperation in North Korea. South Korea should empower KOICA as it has both knowledge and expertise in development cooperation.

Not only due to the increasing severity of the humanitarian situation which has worsened and can become even more catastrophic after COVID-19, but also as a prominent development cooperation partner, South Korean humanitarian aid towards North Korea should move forward from short-term, one-off approach or diplomatic tool to long-term, persistent, and strategic development cooperation.