The call by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) offers applicants grants of up to $350,000 to promote “human rights and democratic principles in North Korea”. Proposals are sought that promote “access to information into, out of, and within North Korea,” the call says, including those involving “the production of media, including visual/video content, for DVDs, USBs, and other methods to send information into North Korea.”
But while many oppose North Korea’s long-standing information blockade and strict censorship laws, several observers told NK News that there could be serious risks for those involved in the transport or consumption of US-funded information, with provisions in the call clearly implying activities that both North Korean and Chinese authorities may view as illegal.
“[The call] is encouraging people to break their country’s laws, with no consideration of the possible consequences,” said James Hoare, a former British Charge D’affaires to Pyongyang. “I doubt whether those who devised these policies have given much thought to the likely consequences.”
As shown in the case of Kenneth Bae, the US national currently serving a 15-year sentence of hard labor in North Korea, Washington’s North Korea policy is not often helped by the arrest of American citizens attempting to share information that Pyongyang views with suspicion.
The grant call welcomes proposals “that support recommendations from the recently released report from the (United Nations) commission of inquiry on North”. While the UN commission operated on a strict “first do no harm” basis to ensure the safety of contributors, the risks involved in moving information in and out of North Korea suggest a contradiction with the State Department’s own strategy to improve human rights in North Korea.
The report, which offers the most comprehensive account of human rights violations in North Korea, explained how local authorities have been known to execute vendors found supplying external media, or tortured or imprisoned end-users found with foreign materials in their possession.
It also referenced the North Korean criminal code, which says that those found “listening to hostile broadcasting and collect[ing], keeping and distribut[ing] enemy propaganda”, would be sentenced to hard labor.”
Because the trafficking of physical information takes place along the Chinese-North Korean border, it could require the illicit movement of individuals and materials, which is likely to break both Chinese and North Korean laws.
Despite the risks involved with getting information into and out of North Korea, two human rights activists said the dangers were worth the benefits. “Brave policies, activists and strong convictions have made progress in human history… Doing nothing for fear that such grants may irritate the North Korean regime is cowardly,” said Eunkyoung Kwon, of Open Radio North Korea, an organization that has received US funding.
Bada Nam, secretary general of the People for Successful Korean Reunification, an organization that helps North Korean defectors in China, said there was a net benefit to the process of getting outside information into North Korea. “Even though it is so dangerous to deliver information inside NK, it is worth it to change the people inside,” Nam said.
“If there is no one providing information into North Korea, the NK people will not gain any access to the real world. I think they have the right to know the truth,” Nam said, adding that “the future is made by the people who take danger together”.