The era of engaging the world’s worst actors continues apace with the recent announcement that the United Nations Development Program has formally returned to North Korea and restarted its program there on Wednesday September 30, 2009. 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. According to a FoxNews summary of an independent audit commissioned by UNDP and released in May 2008, UNDP “routinely, and systematically… 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.”
In light of North Korea’s actions over the past year and its disdain for the U.N. Security Council’s resolutions regarding its nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missiles programs, the decision to return is baffling. 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. UNDP’s return to North Korea — and the continued present of other U.N. agencies like WFP and UNICEF — rewards the reprehensible government of Kim Jong-Il.