Delivering Aid Across the Enemy Line: Civil Society In South Korea and the Politics of Aid to North Korea

Eun Jeong Soh, University of South Carolina


Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become important actors in International Relations in the field of humanitarian and development aid. These actors, motivated primarily by ideal values and goals, face a moral dilemma of having to partner with an autocratic state, which is the very perpetrator of the problems NGOs attempt to tackle. Under the moral dilemma, the endowment of socio-cultural as well as material resources shape preferences of these actors. Therefore, NGOs channel preferences of the donor society. Forms of aid shaped by the preferences have a mixed effect of both reinforcing as well as transforming the state-society relations in a recipient society.

South Korea's NGOs who delivered aid to North Korea between 1995 and 2008 are examined in this study. Preferences of the NGOs are examined at two levels. At the broader societal level, the dominant frame at a given period is constitutive of a coalition of various civil society actors and state institutions. At each individual NGO level, donor characteristics, whether individual or institutional, shape the NGOs' project choices and priority on monitoring and distribution.

Dynamics of the North Korean regime and its state-society relations suggest that whether aid from NGOs benefits the regime or the poor depends on how aid is channeled. The scales and types of aid should be determined based on understandings of the power dynamics, conditions of life, and emerging spaces of livelihood in North Korea.