Police Raid Humanitarian Group Over Pandemic Aid to North Korea

Photograph Source: Michał Huniewicz – CC BY 2.0

An Interview with Peter Wilson

United Nations and U.S. sanctions targeting North Korea prohibit almost all trade and transactions with the nation, resulting in collective punishment of the entire population. Ostensibly, humanitarian aid is exempt from sanctions. Still, many humanitarian groups have been compelled to curtail or halt assistance to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – the official name for North Korea). U.S. officials regularly contact officials abroad, urging them to crack down on businesses, organizations, and individuals having any dealings with North Korea.

One such group is the New Zealand-Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Society (NZ DPRK Society), which over the years, has provided aid and engaged in educational exchanges with North Korea. Among its projects, it has provided farm equipment, diesel fuel, flood relief, and fertilizer to the NZ Friendship Farm, supplementary food to the SeungHo Home for the Elderly, and multiple shipments of medical supplies. These are only a few examples of the group’s many activities.

This year, the NZ DPRK Society fell afoul of the U.S.-driven effort to strangle the North Korean economy when it provided the DPRK with personal protective equipment to help it deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Peter Wilson, the Society’s secretary, shared his experiences with me.

Elich: You are the secretary of the NZ DPRK Society, an organization that was established in 1972. What are the organization’s general aims and activities? Your group has provided an impressive array of humanitarian aid to North Korea over the years, too many to go into here. But tell us more about some projects that particularly stand out in your mind.

Wilson: Our main activities are informing the New Zealand public and government about the predicament North Korea and its people find themselves in, carrying out people-to-people initiatives, and providing what modest help we can by implementing small projects or gifts of aid.

In these, the Society has had mixed success. Misinformation and prejudice are so strongly entrenched in both the general public and government politicians’ and agencies’ minds from the huge anti-North Korea propaganda effort that it is hard to get the truth across. Most people in the public sphere or those in government can’t be bothered to take any interest, so we have not done so well in our efforts to inform the New Zealand public and government.

The Society did play a role in lobbying for New Zealand to establish diplomatic relations with the DPRK, which a Labour (liberal) government did in 2001. The subsequent National (conservative) government wound that back and totally froze all diplomatic contact in 2015. Contrary to its expressed intention, the 2017–2020 Labour Party-led government did not restore diplomatic relations. Everything points to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson having pressured our prime minister and foreign affairs minister to support him in a policy of isolation.

The people-to-people activities have all been successful, including cultural group exchange visits in the ‘80s and ’90s, the first Western teacher to teach in a DPRK school in 2006, guest lectureships at Pyongyang universities, and study tours to New Zealand by North Korean teachers and university lecturers.

Similarly, the provision of equipment to the Friendship School, flour to the Bongsu Church Bakery (noodles and bread were given to elderly living alone, rest homes for the elderly, etc.), container loads of outdated antibiotics and drugs, and superseded hospital equipment (which got stopped by the impact of United Nations Sanctions!), tractors, trucks, diesel fuel, fertilizer for the Friendship Farm, flood relief aid; all of these things have been successful projects.

The result of all of these activities provides a lot of personal satisfaction to the individuals involved at both ends. All the time, each side is learning a little more about the other, and bonds of personal trust and friendship are strengthened, which is a good thing. In implementing these little projects and initiatives, unexpected things happen, and things can go wrong. We have always been able to solve arising issues amicably in a spirit of mutual respect and goodwill.

I do not know how many sister DPRK societies or friendship societies there are around the world. Fifty? Sixty? Something on that order. Some are moribund. Many just write letters of solidarity. A few are physically active – the Scandinavian and Australian societies being in this category. I was told by a Pyongyang official some years ago that the New Zealand Society was the most active one. I did not believe it, but as time has gone by, I think it might be the truth.

It is true to say that New Zealand is held in very high regard in Pyongyang, indeed throughout the DPRK. This is because of the projects we have done, with some of them being things that had never been done before. We have only been able to do this because of farsighted personnel in our counterpart organization, the Korea–NZ Friendship Society. I admire them greatly because they have been willing to risk the stalling of their careers by sticking their necks out and trying new things.

So, all of this is well and good. Our little projects have done some good and allowed a few people in both countries to gain some knowledge and understanding of the other.

As I reflect on your question, however, I realize that the major impact of the Society’s work has, in fact, been accomplished by others. About eleven years ago, as secretary of the NZ DPRK Society, I received an inquiry from a very bright young recent graduate in Singapore. He had a vision of what turned into Choson Exchange, but he did not know who he could talk to in Pyongyang or how to go about it. With our (then) forty-something years background in joint projects, I made the right connections for him. Today I look in amazement and pride at what Geoffrey See and his Choson Exchange volunteers have accomplished.

In 2012, I got a call from a Korean-American woman. Three years earlier, she had had a dream and a vision of women doing a peace march across the DMZ. Everybody she had consulted for three years had told her it would be impossible. We had just completed an epic groundbreaking project in which a bunch of Kiwi motorcyclists rode their bikes through Siberia into and across the DPRK, through the DMZ, and over the length of the ROK. She asked me whether I thought her vision was possible. I still recall my reply: “I believe it is eminently doable.”

Based on our Society’s experiences, I was able to tell her how to go about it. For the next 15 months, I worked with Christine Ahn. And she fulfilled her vision. On the 24th of May, 2015, I was the only Westerner amongst a couple of busloads of North Koreans who watched Christine and her twenty-nine international women enter the North Korean passport office in the middle of the DMZ and cross over into South Korea.

As an aside, that was a very emotional moment. The North Korean women and the international women were hugging and hugging, tears streaming down their faces. I was crying too. In fact, the emotion of the moment has caught me again right now; I’m having to wipe my eyes dry.

I am in absolute awe at what Christine has accomplished with WomenCrossDMZ since then.

The impact of what Geoffrey and Christine are doing is immense. What they are accomplishing is huge, way beyond anything the NZ DPRK Society has ever done or is ever likely to. It is a nice feeling knowing that we were able to help them get started.

Elich: I understand what you are saying, although when I look at the list of activities the NZ DPRK Society has engaged in over the years, I am quite impressed with its achievements.

Before this year, what challenges or obstacles has the society encountered in arranging humanitarian aid to North Korea? I suppose there is a procedure for obtaining approval for an exemption to UN sanctions based on humanitarian grounds, perhaps involving delays and bureaucratic hurdles. Was the process made more difficult by the draconian UN and U.S. sanctions introduced in 2017?

Wilson: Up until the ’90s, everything was done by writing letters. Pyongyang was often slow to answer, and postal services were slow. It got better with faxes, but then it became a lot easier with email. The only other nuisances were people applying too late for a visa and stuff like that.

For all projects, right from the start, the NZ DPRK Society worked up the project in discussion with our counterparts, whether this was done by post, fax, email, or in person. Once it was agreed to — and Pyongyang was usually quite quick in making their minds up — we just went ahead and did it, whatever it was.

In 2005, I opened a Society account at a bank in Pyongyang. We then sent up $3,500 to buy a tractor for the NZ Friendship Farm. No problem. My counterpart secretary bought the tractor. There happened to be some Kiwis in Pyongyang at that time, and they went out and presented the tractor to the farm.

At around about 2006, the U.S. Department of Treasury told banks around the world that if they did any business with North Korea, they would be stopped from doing any other foreign exchange transactions using the U.S. dollar, so we were never able to send money to that account again. Since then, somebody has always carried money for projects by hand to Pyongyang.

This year we had somebody visiting in March, and he would have carried the US$2000 up, but of course, he could not go because of COVID-19, so we found another route to channel the money, and this is what has caused us the trouble.

Apart from this, we have never had any problems. We have always decided to do a project, and then we have done it. We have never asked anybody, government or UN or anybody. Why should we? What is it the Nike slogan says?  Just do it. That’s what we have always done.

Elich: The first signal you received that things have changed this year involved the Society’s bank accounts. Tell us what happened with that and how it impacted the Society’s operations.

Wilson: The Society had two bank accounts. The main account was in the name of the NZ DPRK Society; the second, more recently established account, was called the Donald Borrie Memorial Scholarship account. This account was named in memory of one of the Society’s founders.  Money was raised to bring three scholars from the DPRK to do a six-week course teaching English as a second language and English language communications. But the coronavirus intervened.

On the 21st of January, the DPRK stopped all flights and trains into the country. I think they were the first country in the world to lockdown. At that time, the virus did not have a name, and only 291 cases had been reported in China.

Two weeks later, Pyongyang sent out an urgent request for help to fund virus testing kits and other related items.

There are four trustees of the Donald Borrie memorial fund; three live in Auckland and one about an hour’s drive away. It was a while before we could meet. When we did meet, we agreed that it would not be possible to go ahead with the three scholars project. We decided to allocate US$2000 as a response to Pyongyang’s request.

Normally, we would have had somebody hand-carry the money, and we had somebody holding tickets to go the first week of March, which of course he could not do.

Plan A was to ask the New Zealand Red Cross Society to pass on the donation to the International Federation of Red Cross Societies and Red Crescents for handing on to the Red Cross of the DPRK. Sadly, they informed us that no mechanism exists which would allow this to happen.

So, we adopted Plan B. The DPRK Embassy in Jakarta covers New Zealand. A cooperative person was identified living in East Java, 500 km away from Jakarta. We sent the US$2000 to the East Java account on the 5th of March. Jakarta acknowledged receipt of the money a couple of days later. My counterpart in Pyongyang acknowledged receipt a few days after that. An official receipt was received from the DPRK Red Cross the next day. Where there is a will, there is always a way, and this was an effective way. It was an urgent request and we felt pleased that we had been able to respond quite quickly.

It was some time before we got photographs, but once we did, we put out a press release on the 4th of June.

About a month later, I got a phone call from the bank, saying they were doing a routine audit of some international money transfers. From the questions being asked, it did not seem to be a routine audit. I asked for the questions in writing. There were about eight queries. I did not answer but sent them the link to the June 4 press release, saying that we had sent the money via an intermediary in Indonesia.

A senior bank operations manager called and asked a lot more questions. I asked for those in writing. If I had printed out all of the questions, they would have filled an entire A4 page. They wanted to know the details of every transaction since 2011. What was the withdrawal for? Did it go to North Korea? Did we have an invoice?

By this time, we had learnt that the DPRK friendship societies in Sweden and Denmark had their longstanding bank accounts summarily closed down, and we had withdrawn in cash the balances from our two accounts. Referring to this, the bank’s final question to us asked: on such-and-such a date, you withdrew X amount. What was this for?

Not the hallmarks of a routine transaction audit.

I pondered this for a few days. The operations manager rang us up again, and we had a long conversation, which culminated in her asking me what I really wanted to know. I said that so far as your bank was concerned, we did a transfer to Indonesia. That is a long way from North Korea. Why did you come asking all those questions to us? She said she did not know, but she would find out.

To my astonishment, she emailed the next day saying, “The New Zealand Police alerted us to your press release.” A couple of days later, they closed our bank accounts.

We expected that that would be the end of the matter.

We are still holding the cash, as we have not decided what to do. We want to donate 66% of it to two worthy projects in the DPRK, but for the time being, we are stymied as to how we can achieve this.

Elich: On October 19, police raided your home and that of another member of the Society. Tell us what happened then. What did the police confiscate? I understand that you’re also currently under investigation for breach of UN sanctions. Has anything been said to you concerning potential charges?

Wilson: At 11.00 AM, I opened my front door to find four police on my doorstep, three uniformed and one in plainclothes, who was the senior officer. I don’t know what rank she held; her business card said: Investigator, Financial Intelligence Unit, New Zealand Police. She and one of the uniformed officers had flown up here to Auckland from the capital, Wellington, which is about 300 miles away.

Police in New Zealand are not armed. For the 1 3/4 to two hours that they were here, they were professional and courteous in a relaxed and friendly sort of way. They were just normal cops, doing a job.

I was presented with an unsigned copy of the search warrant, which cited a breach of United Nations Sanctions (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Regulations 2017 (LI 2017/74) and clause 3.1 of the 1946 United Nations Act. They were only interested in post-2017 material. I took them to my untidy office, lifted five file boxes of papers out of the cupboard, and a huge overstuffed file from the filing cabinet, and told them everything they might be interested in would be in them and on my laptop, which was on the desk.

The senior officer came with me to the dining table and told me she had questions to ask me; I could refuse to answer, and I had the right to have a lawyer present. She had a list of free legal aid lawyers. I called our NZ DPRK Society legal counsel, who arrived within 25 minutes. I don’t think she expected anybody quite so high-powered. Our legal counsel is the Hon. Matt Robson, a former Minister of Corrections and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in the New Zealand Parliament. These days, he is in public practice, as well as serving as the South East Asia and the Pacific Coordinator for Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.

Questions were put to me regarding disbursements from one of our bank accounts. On advice, I declined to answer.

They took away I don’t know how many documents. I did not see all that they took, but one police officer walked out with what I would estimate to be a bundle of papers about ten inches high. They also took my laptop, cellphone, and notebook with phone numbers and all of my different passwords in it.

My co-signatory of the bank account had the bank statements; his cellphone and laptop were taken. They spent one hour at his house.

Under Clause 3.1 of the 1946 United Nations Act, somebody breaching the Act can be fined $10,000 or spend one year in gaol.

The 2017 regulation runs to 39 pages. Most of it is about arms, coal, petroleum products, and stuff like that. One section deals with financial services. Section 43 is as follows:

Prohibitions relating to financial services 43 Prohibitions in relation to financial services:

(1) A person must not establish a place of business or subsidiary in New Zealand knowing that the place of business or subsidiary is a branch or subsidiary of a financial service provider that is incorporated or established in DPRK or that is incorporated or established by a beneficial owner in DPRK.

(2) A person must not establish a place of business or subsidiary in DPRK knowing that the place of business or subsidiary is a branch or subsidiary of a financial service provider incorporated or established in New Zealand.

(3) A person must not obtain any financial service from, or provide any financial service to, a financial service provider knowing that the provider is incorporated or established in DPRK or incorporated or established by a beneficial owner in DPRK

(4) A person that provides any financial service to any person or entity in DPRK must stop providing the financial service if the person has reasonable grounds to believe that the financial service could contribute to— (a) DPRK’s nuclear, ballistic missile, or WMD programmes; or (b) other activities prohibited by these regulations.

(5) A person must not provide financial services to any other person knowing that the financial services are intended to be used for trade with DPRK unless the provision of financial services has been approved in advance by the Committee.

Regulation 43(1): amended, on 28 June 2018, by regulation 15(1) of the United Nations Sanctions (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Amendment Regulations 2018 (LI 2018/86). Regulation 43(3): amended, on 28 June 2018, by regulation 15(2) of the United Nations Sanctions (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Amendment Regulations 2018 (LI 2018/86).

It is hard to see how giving some money to the DPRK Red Cross can be deemed a breach. I have not read the footnoted other regulations; maybe there is something there. At the time of this interview, five days after the raid, it is still a mystery what the breach might be.

Elich: I wish you and the NZ DPRK Society all the best in such trying circumstances. Do you have any parting thoughts you would like to share?

Wilson: I have been reflecting these past few days and marvelling at the reach of the anti-North Korea clobbering machine. That our tiny Society has had its bank account shut down and is under investigation for some unspecified breach of sanctions just tells me how tightly the noose is being drawn around the DPRK’s neck. What is the NZ DPRK Society in the global scheme of things? We are a nonentity, yet we are being clobbered for putting the paltry sum of $2,000 towards our fellow human beings in North Korea, to support efforts to protect themselves from the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus!

In itself, this is sad, but it is a sickening charade that this is being done in the name of the United Nations. What has humanity come to?

Peter Wilson is an agricultural specialist who has spent fifty years actively planning and implementing humanitarian projects in twenty-one countries in the Asia/Pacific region, including North Korea, ranging in cost from a few hundred dollars up to $32 million. He is Secretary of the NZ DPRK SocietyFollow the NZ DPRK Society on Twitter at @DprkNz

Gregory Elich is a Korea Policy Institute board member. He is a contributor to the collection, Sanctions as War: Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy (Haymarket Books, 2023). His website is https://gregoryelich.org  Follow him on Twitter at @GregoryElich.