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Applying Lessons from Afghanistan to North Korea: Infrastructure Reconstruction

Image: US Department of Defense

From Singapore to Hanoi, the only thing we received from the historic Trump-Kim summits was ambiguity. Even though we already knew that the fundamental reason for this summit to be held was for the U.S. leader to negotiate with the North Korean Supreme Leader on the topic of denuclearization, nothing was definite. Nothing was achieved from the talks, whether it was determining to what extent North Korea is willing to give up their nuclear weapons, what is their definition of denuclearization, or what kinds of reciprocal measures could the U.S. offer them. However, it is believed that on the U.S. side, the deal was apparent, as President Donald Trump asked Kim Jong Un to "provide a comprehensive declaration of its nuclear program, allow full access to the U.S. and international inspectors, eliminate all nuclear infrastructure, hand over all nuclear weapons, and transfer all nuclear program scientists and technicians to commercial activities.” Still, this deal leaves us to question whether Kim Jong Un has an intention to denuclearize, since some experts would say nuclear weapons seem to be the source of power for the Kim regime, as a tool for obtaining what they want. Be that as it may, there is some optimism from Korea experts that the need for economic and infrastructure development might influence Kim Jong Un to be rational. In giving up their nuclear weapons and concluding a deal with the U.S., North Korea might normalize themselves in order to pursue foreign assistance. We can see a positive outcome that the North Korean Supreme Leader had “agreed to restart negotiations in the hopes of brokering a deal to start the full denuclearization of the peninsula” from the recent talk between the U.S. and North Korea leader, in which President Trump “made an impromptu and historic meeting with Kim Jong Un and became the first U.S. president to cross into North Korea soil.” Hence, if the deal between the U.S. and North Korea ever happens, we might be able to see the reconstruction program aided by various nation happening in North Korea like what happened in several countries such as Afghanistan. The dominant donor would be the U.S. The US provides their help either by money or experts via the United States Agency for International Development, namely, USAID.

Even though we have seen a lot of USAID operations help states develop their economy, rebuild, and bring back their domestic stability, it has failed to promote large-scale development in many countries. Ironically, the criticism of their failure even come from within themselves, since they have failed to either project a significant impact on the economic development or failed in attempts to promote self-sustaining economic growth in recipient countries. Consequently, if the conclusion for the Trump-Kim summit would result in the denuclearization of North Korea in exchange for the assistance from the USAID program to help rebuild the country, the lessons taken from the Afghanistan development program could be a model for a successful development program in North Korea.

Since Afghanistan and North Korea share many similarities, any missteps in the development program carried out in Afghanistan could be analyzed and the results used in North Korea to prevent the same failure. From being a former Communist state to suffering from the lack of infrastructure, Afghanistan and North Korea's similarities could be important to development plans for a normalized DPRK. Of course, several past experiences could make Afghanistan's situation different from North Korea. However, the most critical ground for Afghanistan to be a model for a North Korean development plan would be that both countries were promised assistance from the same third party in rebuilding their countries. After experiencing a series of wars and a repressive regime, Afghanistan was left with such a devastated economy that in order to rebuild the country, they needed to depend on foreign assistance. From a decade of war with the Soviet Union in 1979, a period of suppression by the Taliban regime in 1995, followed by a western military operation to overthrow the Taliban government led by the U.S. in 2001, Afghanistan was left with widespread devastation along with population relocation. Decades of destructive war, lack of trade and transportation, an absence of central authority, and a lack of labor as people fled the country resulted in a land and infrastructure degradation.

For this reason, aid was required to rebuild Afghanistan. The reconstruction of Afghanistan began in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban regime. The Afghan Interim Authority Fund (AIAF) was established by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to channel financial donations to Afghanistan (Fayez 2012). Consequently, in 2002, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), UNDP, and the World Bank (WB) prepared a Comprehensive Needs Assessment to estimate the probable cost of reconstruction and concluded that Afghanistan would need around $14.6-$18.1 billion over ten years (Fayez 2012). It was not the first time for Afghanistan to receive foreign aid, as Afghanistan has had a long experience as a beneficiary of foreign aid. Aid was given to Afghanistan many times throughout the years, such as in the second half of the 19th century, when Afghanistan was provided aid from the British Empire to limit the USSR’s influences, as well as the flow of both financial and technical support from the U.S. during the Cold War to help Afghanistan fight against the Soviet troops.

Moreover, later, there was a flow of donations during the Afghan civil war from 1992 through the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2001. For long periods, Afghanistan has always been locked in the middle of the war and received aid from foreign countries. Afghanistan has been and still is an aid-dependent country. The aid given was required to reconstruct Afghanistan, as well as to lay the groundwork for sustainable development. However, when Afghanistan received aid from the donor, it was either prescriptive and supply-driven or donor-driven and directed by the political and military objectives of donors (Fayez 2012). Even though foreign aid has contributed enormously to development in Afghanistan, a large proportion of aid has been spent according to how the donors want rather than the needs of the Afghans. On the one hand, it is true that since 2001, there has been a lot of development progress in Afghanistan. Democratic institutions and ministries have been established, primary education has expanded, roads have been constructed and transport infrastructure improved, and state security forces have been formed (Fayez 2012). However, a large amount of aid has been spent without prioritization. The development projects have been conducted in favor of the donor with the purpose to show off progress, rather than in favor of the what the majority in Afghanistan needs. For example, even though 80% of the Afghan population depends on agriculture for their living, the agriculture sector has received only $400-500 million in aid since 2001(Fayez 2012).

On the other hand, the aid donors take back the funds they give in the form of the high salary they pay their citizens, imported experts in Afghanistan, even when they are not required (Fayez 2012). Not only do the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) pay their people who work in Afghanistan, but also the cost of foreign security providers to protect their employees reverses the funds back to the donor countries. Moreover, the cost that the Afghan government has to pay for those imported experts also include luxurious rented homes and entertainment. Aid unnecessarily spent on technical advisers and others in the U.S., employment of foreigners working in Afghanistan, subcontractors as well as supplies purchased in Turkey and India, and foreign security contractors from Nepal and South Africa, means that 40% of the international aid provided to Afghanistan reversed back to the donor countries in the form of corporate profits and consultants’ salaries and allowances (Fayez 2012).

Additionally, NGOs act independently and do not publicly disclose their details, resulting in a transparency problem. The aid could be given directly to the people in need or an organization that works on the issue, or sometimes the aid might fall into the hands of local commanders or warlords (Fayez 2012). Likewise, the allocation of the aid is highly centralized, and it would mostly focus on the development in urban centers, meaning the rural areas were left out. This is because aid money is being spent to benefit the elite. In order to fulfill the needs of the country elite, the funds were spent on unnecessary and costly projects. The case of the Ring Road is an example. The costs of construction and repair of the roads are indefinite. It does increase the mobility in the country and strengthen trade (Fayez 2012), but it makes Afghanistan, which already relies heavily on imports, more dependent on them, pushing the Afghan government into debt. The road connecting Kabul, Heart, and Kandahar makes it more convenient for importing luxury goods to fulfill the desire of the elite. The road would better benefit the country if it had been appropriately constructed and if there was peace, since there has never been adequate security on this highway due to the continuing attacks of the Taliban (Fayez 2012).

The absence of central and strong authority made Afghanistan a perfect place for a surge of insurgency. The struggle for Afghanistan to sustain its infrastructure is that they still face an emergence of insurgency in the country. With the absence of a central authority providing security and essential services to the people, it gives the chance for non-state actors to fill the gap. When domestic politics acts like international politics and turns anarchic, it is the perfect time for a stronger leader to rise and take control of the system. After the Taliban was overthrown by the U.S. military, the newly appointed government could not function well enough to provide stability to the country. The appointed government was good when it came to distributing power among the minorities in the country; but the cause of conflict in Afghanistan is not the issue of ethnicity or minority but rather the weakness of the government. The problem with the Afghan government was the fragmentation in their power even before the Taliban came to power. The former government was also not strong enough to hold power. Thus, the system of anarchy allowed the Taliban to act as a security provider for the system as well as the group running the system. Even though the country under the Taliban regime resulted in enormous human rights abuse, the system worked. As the Taliban regime collected taxes, provided security, and had the monopoly on violence, they were able to trade with the outside world and make a profit even though the primary source of their revenue was illegal. Regardless of how the newly appointed government, created by instruction from the U.S., was excellent in terms of power distribution among the interest groups; it failed to provide enough control over the country, especially in the rural areas where the central authority does not reach.

Weak government resulted in the weak control of power. The government could not act as the monopoly on violence, especially in domestic politics. The tool for the government to take control of the violence domestically is the police force. When the government could not acquire a well-trained police force, domestic politics become anarchic. Moreover, if the government does not give enough support to their police in the form of training and equipment, the police cannot effectively enforce law and order in order to create stability for the people. Therefore, the government is not strong enough to gather the power from the warlords in the rural areas, and could not maintain and protect the infrastructure from terrorist attacks. Not only is it the insurgency that kept the Afghan infrastructure declining, but also the Afghan themselves do not have enough human capacity to maintain the infrastructure. Additionally, partly due the uncertainty in the Afghan government, and partly due to the broken promises of the donors, Afghanistan has only received part of the aid promised. Due to the low absorption capacity of the economy, the ineffective time frame of the projects, corruption, and lack of prioritization concerning specific goals, a substantial amount of aid has not delivered to Afghanistan (Fayez 2012). Twenty five billion dollars for civil reconstruction was committed to Afghanistan from 2002-2008, but only $14.74 billion was distributed (Waldman 2008). Many donors are no longer committed to fulfilling their pledges for 2002-2011 as well (Fayez 2012). Given these points, Afghanistan has received less than 45% of the amount pledged for the period mentioned (ibid). Under those circumstances, as Afghanistan is still heavily dependent on aid, with the uncertainty about the flow of donations they will get from foreign countries in the future, it is hard for the Afghan government to budget for medium- and long-term projects (Fayez 2012). As a result, the Afghan government still cannot acquire a well-trained police force and army and do not have the stability in themselves to implement policies to ensure the aid donors.

Since Afghanistan still experiences the emergence of insurgency, it is essential that the government should have power to provide security for the people; however, they do not have the potential to assist themselves on their own. In terms of security where the government should be strong enough to act as a monopoly on violence, the Afghan government received assistance from the U.S. military in building and sustaining Afghan security forces, along with the help from Germany. Still, the Afghan army could not operate without help from the joint international military. The Afghans were unable to use and maintain both military equipment and discipline with the training they received. Moreover, the model used for the training of the Afghan military, the U.S. military model, was not designed for compatibility with the Afghan military. Thus, when the U.S. and NATO decided to reduce its presence in the country due to the high cost, the civilian and military causalities from the terrorist attacks by the Taliban grew higher. Additionally, the Taliban regime also got financial support from outside of the country, making it even harder to remove the group from the area altogether. Hence, since the Afghan government could not operate their security forces to provide fundamental security for their people, along with the dangerous terrain operated in by the Taliban, it is hard for the government to maintain the infrastructure and protect the rural areas from the insurgency.

With the lack of both a capable third party to closely monitor the projects conducted in Afghanistan and one group to organize all the aid received, the infrastructure reconstruction program has not been operated successfully. According to the report from the USAID, aid from the U.S. given to Afghanistan was distributed without a close monitor from the U.S. itself and any other third-party organization, making the aid not adequately distributed. Moreover, a significant amount of U.S. assistance goes into security-related activities, where the security conditions seem to be worsening every year regardless of the growth in the security programs. Without one single organization to organize the aid and prioritize the distribution, cases where the aid went directly from the NGOs into the hands of the local commanders and warlords, creating a surge in criminal activity, were present.

Similarly, the aid can be wasted on unnecessary projects to benefit the self-interests of the elites. The example of the Ring Road, stated earlier, is one such case. Another issue is that the donors would frequently give the aid directly to the contractors or implementing agencies without informing the Afghan government (Fayez 2012), creating the transparency issue between the government and the donors. Moreover, the lack of essential services in the rural areas and the absence of security made it a perfect opportunity for a non-state actor to appear, resulting in the rise of the insurgency. Without a well-trained police force and law and order, it is hard for the government to achieve stability. Therefore, the fundamental problem in security for Afghanistan is still present in the country, and it is hard to eliminate since the government does not have the potential to maintain its power and therefore maintain the infrastructure.

Regardless of the war that both countries have undergone, the war that Afghanistan had was longer and more destructive than the one North Korea experienced. For more than two decades, Afghanistan had been stuck in the middle of the war, from the war with the Soviet Union followed by the war to overthrow the Taliban, cut off from trade and interaction with the international communities. Additionally, after the western military operation in Afghanistan ended, the country experienced a high level of intervention by the international community, undermining the sovereignty of Afghanistan. However, after their war, North Korea was left alone to manage their own business, isolated themselves, and chose to have no interaction with other countries except for the communist countries, China and the former Soviet Union. Also, the Supreme Leader of North Korea holds full power in his hand and is a monopoly on violence, while the Afghan leadership is so weak that the country could not run effectively.

In conclusion, after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, an absence of a stable government to implement law and order means it is hard for Afghanistan to obtain stability. The Afghans do not have the potential to maintain or assist themselves. Along with the emergence of insurgency from the Taliban attack, which could not be prevented since the government is ineffective and corrupt, there is a lack of human capacity as much of the population has fled the country. The fact must be considered that, after decades of foreign assistance, the country should be able to assist themselves. Natural resources remain untapped due to lack of infrastructure and proper conduct upon discoveries, even though those resources could be the means for the long-term economic development for the country and perhaps put an end to the Afghan war itself (Fayez 2012). However, the economic system was modeled after the U.S. economy, which highly based on consumption and imports. This made Afghanistan burdened by cost of imports and hardly able to stand on their own feet. Hence, for Afghanistan to be able to assist themselves and to prevent the aid from supporting criminal activity, there should be an organization who manages the allocation of the aid (Fayez 2012). The aid should equally be distributed according to the requirement of each area.

Moreover, the government should be strong enough to operate effectively. The government should collect taxes and conduct trade to reduce the dependency on foreign aid in order to develop in a sustainable manner. Therefore, as an alternative way for the government to make a profit for the country and reduce imports, the untapped natural resources in the country should be developed as a means for exports for Afghanistan.

In order for the North Korean reconstruction program to be successful, the country should increase the interaction and trade with other countries to prevent a dependency on foreign aid. As North Korea already has a strong government, the potential to assist themselves financially should be established. Additionally, the government should prevent corruption so the work can be carried out to fulfill the basic needs of the majority. The government should provide enough essential services and security for their citizens in order to prevent the rise of an insurgency. For the international community, they should provide humanitarian assistance to the North Koreans but should not impose the one-size-fits-all political model to North Korea. Since the historical and cultural context of each country is different, the model for North Korean development should be organized and planned to fit North Korea. Also, there should be an establishment of a sole organization to organize and closely monitor the programs undertaken in North Korea to avoid misuse of aid and a conflict of interests between the donors, and more importantly, to prioritize the use of aid.

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.


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