My night with the Eugene Bell Foundation

The Eugene Bell Foundation is a charity that works in North Korea helping patients with multidrug resistant tuberculosis.  The chairman, Dr. Stephen Linton came to Fletcher yesterday to talk, and then afterwards I ate dinner with him and a group of students.  Dr. Linton is incredibly sincere, and frank, about his work and his views of North Korea.  I am skeptical of aid work in North Korea, or even most engagement with North Korea, but believe direct medical care is a very worthwhile thing.  Check out the link to the website, where you can donate.

That said, I didn’t agree with many of Dr. Linton’s ideas about how to deal with the problem that is North Korea.  I won’t discuss that because it would be very rude to mention private remarks.

Here is some commentary from the One Free Korea blog that, while doesn’t completely align with my views, gives an alternate take on the Eugene Bell Foundation.  I will say that I think the actual medical work is absolutely worthwhile, but there are some issues to consider about the price of access in North Korea.

I have described my view of the Eugene Bell Foundation as “suspicious,” and  although  my view is unchanged by further research, “deeply ambivalent” would  be a better way to describe it.  A narrow-angle focus on EBF’s activities reveals that it has done many good things for many North Korean people.  The wide-angle view, however, shows silence about, support for, and effective enablement of  the regime’s  most ruthless policies,  all of which  probably outweighs the good EBF does on the micro scale.

Stephen Linton, EBF’s Chairman, has a very long and interesting history in Korea, primarily in South Cheolla Province.   Linton’s great-grandfather and the namesake of his foundation arrived in Korea in 1895, and various descendants of the family have established hundreds of churches there since.  Linton grew up in South Korea and speaks Korean fluently, which makes him a rarity among foreign aid workers (North Korea generally doesn’t  allow Korean-speaking aid workers  and assigns  all workers  government “translators”).  As a child, Linton contracted tuberculosis,  which was widespread  in South Korea  through the 1970′s.  This may explain why TB clinics in North Korea have been a primary  focus of EBF’s efforts.

EBF’s relationship with the North Korean regime certainly is not the tense, adversarial  kind that most NGO’s report.  EBF was even  the object of a “surprise reception” by the North Korean Ministry of Public Health,  something that  must be a fairly unique experience among NGO’s working in North Korea.  Part of this must be  because EBF does worthy things, such as  providing training and services to combat tuberculosis, mostly innorthwestern North Korea.  This much is unreservedly commendable.  Medical services are much less vulnerable to diversion than cash or bulk food aid, and the fact that the patients are also afflicted by a tyrant’s misrule does not make this aid any less commendable.  I can hardly think of a better way to aid the North Korean people under the present, highly controlled circumstances than to help treat the sick.

Another part of the regime’s  approval of EBF is almost certainly because  it likes EBF’s politics.  The EBF really just started to expand its work in North Korea after other  NGO’s, including Medicins Sans Frontieres,  accused the regime of denying it access to those in greatest need and left.  Linton first visited North Korea in 1979,  during a time of extreme tensions,  with Billy Graham.  Wikipedia claims that Linton met with the late Kim Il Sung twice,  as Graham’s translator.   North Korea certainly treated any meeting with the Kims as great privileges, and you’d think that the  North Korean government had translators of its own.  You may say, “So what?  Does that make that Billy Graham  a North Korean shill, too?”   A prop, perhaps, but not a shill.   And the comparison is inapposite.  Graham,  unlike Linton,  was famous enough that  Kim Il Sung served his own propaganda and diplomatic  interests by meeting him.

In Linton’s case, the North Korean regime gained something else —  an academically brilliant, knowledgeable, and  exceptionally articulate apologist with the capacity to reach influential audiences,  including the U.S. Congress.   Here, for example, is how Linton weaves his way toward justifying North Korea’s nuclear weapons program amid the largest famine of the last quarter-century:

Faith in fairness is essential to justify the risks of opening a closed economy to international trade, and North Korea’s leadership has never believed in a world governed by fair play. Instead, they believe that nature as well as history has created a world of national ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ In this view, because the world’s natural resources are unequally distributed in favor of larger nations, smaller nations have to rely on diplomacy and influence (pressure) to acquire what they need. Not surprisingly, all their energies are exerted in acquiring the leverage needed to force foreign powers to take them seriously.

Sadly, North Korea’s perspective and suspicions regarding international affairs seem to be confirmed by the strong support for US-led sanctions. In the North Korean way of thinking, sanctions ‘prove ‘ that the economic playing field will never be level enough to permit their products to compete in the international arena. When seen from this perspective, North Korea’s international and domestic policies are relatively easy to understand.  [Testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, June 5, 2003]

Some policies, of course, are easier to understand than others, and mostly absent from Linton’s “explanations” are North Korea’s suffocating repression, its hellish concentration camps, and of greatest relevance for Linton’s work, its culpable misallocation of food which, according to various estimates, killed between half a million and  three and a half  million people.  Like other defenders of the regime, Linton views sanctions in a vacuum, without mentioning the acts of terrorism and proliferation that led to them, its stubborn refusal to convincingly renounce those methods, or its compulsion for turning  plowshares into thrust-vector nozzles.  Is nothing Kim Jong Il’s fault?  If so, Linton isn’t saying.

EBF’s support for this  proliferation of misery  must have lent  it  far more credibility than it deserved, and  may well have helped blunt what should have been an international outcry.  We will probably never know how many people were  starved or how many children were stunted by that decision.  Such unqualified support for the regime also hurt other NGOs’ efforts demand better monitoring, access, and distribution.   North Korea has used relatively more compliant NGO’s like EBF to undercut the demands of others for better access.  This is the kind of uncoordinated response to aid that Marcus Noland and Stephen Haggard termed “a race to the bottom.”

But as one who  believes that  saving all of  the North  Korean people matters more than anesthetizing the agony of a few of them,  what I think about this depends entirely on one question:  how much money will the regime make from this, so as to prolong the oppression?  If the amount were no more than needed to cover  some expenses, it would fit my definition of “good engagement,” meaning contact between the people rather than yet another way to perpetuate the regime.  I put that question to an acquaintance who works for EBF; the answer I received was a “why would we?” response, but not exactly a denial, either.  And history suggests that  North Korea will demand and  get a price for this.  In a sense,  it will be a  ransom that’s renewable as long as the hostage lives.

Just as in another sense, the regime uses its entire starving population as hostages.  The choices we are offered are to ignore their misery or prolong it.

– See more at:

Regardless of anything else, Dr. Linton provided a viewpoint that I don’t come across often.  One of his goals was to challenge us, and he certainly did in an intelligent, forthright, sincere manner.

About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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