It’s the Most Dangerous Crisis in the World. Who's Paying Attention?

  Kristina Konovalova /Shutterstock

 Kristina Konovalova/Shutterstock

The situation on the Korean peninsula is increasingly scary. Which funders are paying attention to this crisis? And what can philanthropy realistically do to shape outcomes here?  

One way to begin answering these questions is by looking to the recent past, when private funders played an important role in resolving tensions over Iran’s nuclear crisis starting in the early 2000s. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Ploughshares Fund were the two key players in this work, although other funders pitched in, as well. For over a decade, before an international agreement was reached to suspend Iran’s nuclear program in 2015, grantmakers supported so-called Track II engagement with Iran, which brought together former senior officials from both countries, as well as other connected players, for dialogue which kept going even when official talks were stalled or nonexistent.

Investing in this process over an extended period, RBF president Stephen Heintz told me, was the "key philanthropic point of intervention” and a case of "philanthropy supporting something that wouldn't otherwise have happened." Funders also supported policy research and advocacy to make the case for the final negotiated deal. In an op-ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Ploughshares' executive director, Philip Yun, detailed the ways his organization worked to influence the Iran nuclear issue, acting as both a grantmaker and hands-on policy advocate.

Related: Philanthropy and the Iran Nukes Deal: An "Acupuncture Moment"

The lessons from the Iran work are much on the minds of the handful of funders now engaged in promoting a peaceful resolution to the North Korean situation. Here, too, funders have sought to nurture Track II engagement that keeps dialogue alive. “At times of high tension, keeping existing channels open is very important,” Philip Yun told me. Yun, an expert on North Korea, has been working on the issue for years, even before he joined Ploughshares in 2011. The group’s efforts are premised on the bedrock view that a negotiated resolution must occur. “Given the alternatives, the only thing we can do is a deal,” Yun says.

A preemptive U.S. strike against North Korea’s arsenal isn’t a viable option for various reasons, but nor does Yun believe that ever-stronger sanctions to undermine Kim Jong-un’s regime is the right path forward, as some have argued. He says that if the regime were actually to collapse, its nuclear fissile materials might escape onto the black market—sold to the highest bidder by North Korean officials desperate for cash. Right now, North Korea has enough material for 25 bombs and they’re producing enough for another bomb every eight weeks. “Once you make that stuff, you don’t just throw it away.” And if some is sold, “it will blow up in either the United States, Europe, or Israel,” Yun says.

Yun believes that the best the U.S. can hope for is a deal that freezes North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. “If we get a freeze, we stop them before being able to reach Alaska,” Yun says, referring to North Korea’s recent advances toward building an intercontinental ballistic missile. As importantly, a freeze would stop the country’s work to test and improve the miniaturized nuclear warheads that go atop such missiles.

So what are funders doing to create movement toward a negotiated solution? Investing in Track II engagement has been a top priority. Stephen Del Rosso of the Carnegie Corporation says his foundation has supported such efforts over the past dozen years, “during a period when official governmental dialogue has been suspended or only intermittently pursued.” Over time, this process has come to involve other regional players. “Despite official roadblocks and often alarming developments in the region,” Del Rosso says the corporation’s grantees “have succeeded in engaging with high-level North Korean interlocutors and representatives of other powers in Northeast Asia, and in providing new information to American policymakers.” Quite apart from hopes for a deal, Del Rosso says the value of long-term investments in dialogue is that it helps to increase “mutual understanding” on both sides and “limit the prospects for war.”  

One key player in the mix is the National Committee on North Korea (NCNK), which gets funding from both Carnegie and Ploughshares. It was founded in 2004 by Mercy Corps to bring together experts who support “principled engagement with North Korea as a means to promote peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and to improve the lives of the people of North Korea.” Since 2014, NCNK has been led by Keith Luse, who previously worked as the Republican East Asia Specialist on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he made repeated trips to North Korea and held numerous meetings with officials from its government.

Carnegie has given over $1 million to support NCNK’s work in recent years. It’s given even more to the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, another group that’s been deeply involved in the Track II engagement with North Korea. Del Rosso says the group has been “focused on the ‘New York Channel’ with North Korea’s U.N. mission and discussions with officials from other Northeast Asian countries, involving a heavy contingent of high-ranking, former U.S. officials.”

Carnegie is also supporting several other groups involved in Track II engagement in different ways, including the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue, the Social Science Research Council, and Pacific Council/CSIS. And along with Ploughshares and the MacArthur Foundation, Carnegie is also a funder of policy research on North Korea and its nuclear program. All three funders support the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. That group is involved in various activities, including work to better track the production of fissile materials and what happens to it—a particular concern in the North Korean situation, as Yun notes.

Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation is another important hub of technical research on North Korea’s nuclear program. Its experts include former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who was involved in managing the North Korea situation under President Clinton, and former Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Sigfried Hecker. Carnegie, MacArthur, and Ploughshares all support the Center.

Meanwhile, these three funders have also made grants to support the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, which is also engaged in Track II dialogues, and runs the website, which Del Rosso calls “the go-to, online source for information on and analysis of developments regarding North Korea.”

While only a handful of funders are paying attention to North Korea, and the overall grant totals are small, there’s a lot of work underway by experts and advocates who want to see a peaceful resolution to a crisis that seems to grow more dangerous by the day. Philanthropy has already made a difference here by opening up channels of conversation that would not otherwise exist and greatly expanding the amount of expert knowledge on North Korea and its nuclear program.

Still, what’s striking is how many funders are not paying attention to this precarious situation—or to nuclear security issues generally. A number of foundations, like Hewlett, have pulled out of the nuclear security space in recent years, and they’ve yet to be replaced by a new crop of funders. The Skoll Global Threat Fund is a notable newcomer, and among other things, is a supporter of Ploughshares' work.

Philip Yun says he’s been trying to engage other donors from the tech sector on the nuclear threat. “The two existential threats [to humanity] are global warming and nuclear weapons,” he says. Plenty of newer donors are paying attention to the former; few to the latter. Yun hopes that this will change, pointing out that some top experts, like William Perry, believe that the risk of a nuclear detonation somewhere in the world has never been higher.

Certainly, the current situation on the Korean peninsula underscores just how dangerous things have become in today’s more volatile nuclear age.