by Adrian Schläpfer, Assistant Director-General
Probably no other SDC partner country is so little known and as enigmatic as North Korea, this relict of an ostensibly by-gone Communist era that is shut off from our world. And doubts are repeatedly expressed about Switzerland's engagement there, with questions like: are there any meaningful approaches for long-term development partnership in this country with its planned economy, backwardness and secretiveness? Given the context, is it at all possible to initiate change?
A recent on-the-spot appraisal confirms the image of a country which is hard for us to understand - one that is characterized by existential fear and which has chosen to go it alone with a policy of inflexible autarky. On the other hand, compared with a visit just under four years ago, there are many promising signs of changes in progress behind the rigid facade - changes which the SDC is actively supporting with its special programme.
For instance, the consumer markets that sprang up during the shortages of the Nineties have now become an established part of the North Korean economic system and are no longer treated as state secrets! The farming land in mountainous areas which the starving people started to work back then is now recognized as providing scope for agricultural initiative. The SDC, together with North Korea's Central Bank, is therefore in the process of testing a micro-credit programme to encourage farmers to base their investment decisions on economic feasibility considerations - an innovation for North Korea.
The country still suffers from a structural scarcity of staple foods. As the recent agreement with South Korea shows, food aid is still essential. The sustainable improvement of food security is a top SDC-programme priority. Besides supplying implements, seed and young livestock, the focus is on putting across know-how and perceptions in the "rest of the world", and this approach is supported by study trips and work placements in Switzerland and other European countries. Sound implementation of projects financed by Switzerland is monitored by the SDC Cooperation Office in Pyongyang to ensure compliance with the agreed objectives and to see the aid reaches the intended beneficiaries.
North Korea is not an easy partner. The key values, priorities and methods of Switzerland's development cooperation have to be repeatedly insisted upon. However, the projects implemented over the past twelve years are encouraging. They are taking effect, prompting revised opinions and change. With the SDC's development programme, Switzerland is making a small contribution - but one that is greatly appreciated on the spot and is also recognized by the international community - to overcoming poverty, antagonism and instability on the Korean peninsula. Reason enough to pursue the adopted course and to maintain the development partnership between North Korea and Switzerland.