North Korea’s reported test of a hydrogen bomb may facilitate U.S. Congressional passage of additional sanctions targeting North Korea, and the UN Security Council will soon begin negotiating on a new sanctions resolution. Whenever North Korea engages in acts deemed provocative by U.S. officials or the international community few viable options are available for response.
However, the desired impact of sanctions on North Korea has been hindered by intermittent (at best) implementation by the international community and particularly by China. Despite years of adding layer after layer to the onion of the global sanctions regime, North Korea’s nuclear program and missile projects proceed apace. Aided by a vast global trading company network and an immense web of affiliate organizations, the North Koreans are convinced they can continue to outmaneuver the international community’s best efforts to shut down their nuclear and other prohibited activities.
As new sanctions legislation moves forward in the U.S. House and the Senate, it will be tempting for some members to travel down a new road with the intended destination of effectively ending any humanitarian assistance to North Korea or other forms of principled engagement on the part of U.S. non-government organizations. In years past, one U.S. senator expressed to me his opposition to any form of assistance to North Korea – even aid for orphans or pregnant mothers, including aid that could be well-monitored and reach its intended targets – because he viewed any assistance going into the country as enabling the regime of Kim Jong Il. Such sentiment appears to have grown on Capitol Hill over the intervening years.
In a July 2015 study, the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) stated that while the largest proportion of aid from government contributions to North Korea since the mid-1990s has come from emergency programs administered by international relief organizations, “some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are playing smaller roles in capacity building and people-to-people exchanges, in areas such as agriculture, health, informal diplomacy, information science and education” (CRS also pointed out that many NGOs have been able “to maintain good working relationships with their North Korean counterparts and continue to operate through periods of tension”).
New U.S. sanctions by the Congress or the Administration eliminating U.S. NGO work in North Korea would impede efforts to address the high prevalence of tuberculosis … and hepatitis among other health challenges
While the Obama Administration has pursued a policy of “strategic patience” with limited dialogue occurring at the official level between the U.S. and North Korea, a modest number of U.S. NGOs continued to operate in the North. In recent months, even as North Korea has declined invitations by U.S. officials to engage, American NGO workers have continued operating inside North Korea.
New U.S. sanctions by the Congress or the Administration eliminating U.S. NGO work in North Korea would impede efforts to address the high prevalence of tuberculosis, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (considered to be at an emergency level) and hepatitis among other health challenges found in the rural landscape, including diarrhea and pneumonia – leading causes of childhood death.
U.S. NGOs currently operating in North Korea include a handful of humanitarian organizations with a global presence and several smaller organizations, some with roots in the Korean-American community or driven by a faith-based approach. Their work occurs across a wide range of sectors including hospitals and orphanages. In many cases, they have developed meaningful work partnerships with North Korean medical professionals and local community leaders. On its part, the U.S. government has not provided, directly or indirectly, any significant food or humanitarian assistance to North Korea since 2009.
News coverage of the domestic situation within North Korea has typically focused on issues of human rights, purges of regime leaders, missile launches and the nuclear issue. More recent headlines have reflected the developing class of women and men in business contributing to a transition toward more of a market-oriented economy. Minimal coverage is provided to the extent of the tuberculosis, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and hepatitis emergencies inflicting the North Korean population. The importance of addressing these health challenges should not be forgotten.
As citizens of South Korea more fully comprehend the nature and extent of these nearby health realities, their government may be called upon to elevate its approach toward addressing these issues.
The voiceless victims of major health challenges and emergencies within North Korea – the rural poor, in particular, are not represented among the international stakeholders developing policy toward North Korea whether in Washington, the floor of the UN Security Council, or elsewhere. However, they stand to lose much – perhaps their lives – if a maximalist approach to sanctions results in NGOs and other humanitarian actors having to further curtail or end their work in North Korea.
This statement reflects the personal views of the author.
Featured Image: North Korea Urgently Needs Food and Medicine, Amnesty Says by Eric Lafforgue on 2008-09-08 08:38:35