Search Penny Hill Press

Friday, April 8, 2011

Non-Governmental Organizations’ Activities in North Korea

Mi Ae Taylor
Research Associate in Asian Affairs

Mark E. Manyin
Specialist in Asian Affairs

A number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—non-profit, charitable institutions—have been active in North Korea since the mid-1990s. Although their work is relatively limited in scope, it is of interest to U.S. policy-makers because of the deep isolation of the regime in Pyongyang. Several American and international NGOs have provided assistance to North Korea in humanitarian relief, development, health, informal diplomacy, science, communication and education. A relatively recent trend is that a growing number of NGOs, particularly in South Korea, are run by or have North Korean defectors on staff.

Non-governmental organizations’ activities in North Korea have stirred some controversy. Some observers believe that NGOs’ projects represent one of the few ways to improve the lives of ordinary North Koreans, and that their work provides first-hand accounts about social conditions in North Korea. Some NGOs have a comparative advantage in dealing with North Korea, with over a decade’s experience working with North Korean officials and institutions. However, others argue that NGOs’ programs aid North Korea’s regime, and that given the lack of transparency and tight restrictions imposed on them by the regime, their funds are vulnerable to diversion by North Korean officials.

Two issues bear consideration: Have NGOs contributed to improving the lives of ordinary North Korean citizens in sustainable ways? Can NGOs evaluate the impact of their operations and take steps to minimize diversion of the resources they deliver to North Koreans? In short, are they effective, and should the United States welcome their work in spite of the North Korean regime’s treatment of its citizens? This paper will address some of the publicly disclosed activities that NGOs have undertaken in North Korea.

The role of NGOs in North Korea may re-emerge as a congressional interest, as the Obama Administration has expressed interest in restarting humanitarian assistance to North Korea. During the Bush Administration, five large U.S. NGOs were part of a food delivery program that enjoyed some success. Some believed they were more effective than international organizations at navigating the North Korean system to get aid where it was needed. But some organizations opted to cease their operations when North Korean restrictions became too onerous.

Date of Report: March 25, 2011
Number of Pages: 16
Order Number: R41749
Price: $29.95

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail
Penny Hill Press  or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.