The expulsion of German and US aid workers comes after the arrest of two South Korean nationals accused of espionage. Is Pyongyang getting rid of agencies that portray it in a bad light?
Nearly two months after the head of Welthungerhilfe in North Korea was expelled, the German aid agency still has no clue why Regina Feindt was asked to leave.
"We have no idea of the reason she had to leave but we do not believe it had anything to do with her behavior there," Marc Gross, head of communications for the NGO told DW. "Right now, we do not have enough information, but we are in dialogue with North Korean officials," he added.
The organization has been present in North Korea since 1997 and carries out projects to improve food security, water supply and sanitation in the East Asian nation. Agricultural schemes supported by the agency in South Hwanghae and North Pyongyang provinces are improving the quality of seeds, diversifying and intensifying agricultural production and maintaining agricultural equipment more efficiently.
"Welthungerhilfe is still present in North Korea and project activities are still going on, like activities to improve the water supply and sewage system in different cities," Gross stressed, adding that three members of the NGO's international staff are still in the country. "All we can do now is wait and see if we can go forward again," Gross said.
The expulsions, however, are not limited to Welthungerhilfe. On April 8, the North deported Sandra Suh, a US citizen who had frequently visited the country since 1998 to help carry out humanitarian projects. Suh is the founder of Los Angeles-based humanitarian organization Wheat Mission Ministries.
State media said Suh had "engaged in plot-breeding and propaganda against the DPRK" and that she had secretly taken photos and videos that demonstrated her "inveterate repugnancy" toward the DPRK.
"She admitted that her acts ... seriously insulted the absolute trust of the people of the DPRK in their leader and [were] indelible crimes that infringed on its sovereignty in violation of its law," it added. "She apologized for her crimes and earnestly begged for pardon."
The Korea Central News Agency also emphasized that the North Korean government had decided not to prosecute Suh and simply deported her because of her age and "displaying the generosity of the DPRK law."
But experts say the deportations are hindering the ability of the foreign agencies to effectively carry out their operations and disburse aid and provide support in the isolated nation. Although the North's economy and agricultural sector have shown indications of improvement in recent years, evidence suggests that the country still needs substantial foreign assistance.
The most recent report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, for example, has "urgently" appealed for $111 million from the international community. The report, released on April 8, indicates that approximately 70 percent of North Korea's 24.6 million people lack food security and do not have access to an adequate and nutritiously diverse diet that enables them to lead healthy lives.
Malnutrition rates "continue to be a public health concern," the report states, with the chronic undernutrition rate among children under the age of five running at 27.9 percent. Furthermore, some four percent are listed as acutely malnourished.
Nevertheless, the elites who are loyal to the regime and live in Pyongyang are largely unaffected by food shortages.
Talking to DW about North Korea's actions, Stephan Haggard, a professor at the University of California's San Diego Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, said that we have seen this sort of behavior. "The regime allows foreign aid workers in when they are needed but then take the opportunity to get rid of them again when they are needed less," Haggard said.
Besides that, North Koreans also view these organizations as "a vulnerability in that they are forms of penetration from the outside," the expert underlined.
Starving babies, inefficient or non-existent industry and agriculture, and a society that survives on hand-outs from overseas is not the image that North Korea wants to promote. Particularly to its own people, who are becoming increasingly connected to the outside world and would inevitably lose faith in the regime if they learned it was being propped up by aid from outside.
Yet another concern, from Pyongyang's point of view, would be the potentially subversive effect foreign nationals could have on local people, while a regime that is so paranoid about its security is likely to have reached the conclusion - rightly or wrongly - that at least some of the aid workers who enter the country are agents who are reporting back to hostile foreign powers.
Message from Pyongyang
'The regime wants Europe and the US to drop the issue of North Korea's human rights situation,' says Shigemura
But Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and an authority on North Korean affairs, believes the fact that Pyongyang released both Feindt and Suh is a message to the EU and the US. "I see this as a sign that they want to have dialogue with Europe and the US."
The regime is trying to show goodwill, and it wants something in return for not arresting and sentencing these NGO officials to lengthy prison terms, Shigemura said. "They want Europe and the US to drop the issue of North Korea's human rights situation and, particularly, to stop efforts to have Kim Jong-un reported to the international criminal court for human rights violations," the professor told DW.
But whatever Pyongyang's motivations, Haggard, the University of California professor, fears the aid organizations that are still operating in the North might be subjected to similar pressures in the months ahead.
"There is no doubt that this is an uptick in the number of expulsions and I've not seen anything like this going back as far as the early 2000s, when they first tightened up on NGOs," he said, noting that "it would not surprise me to see more expulsions."