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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
Obstacles to humanitarian work inside North Korea as a result of international sanctions are becoming a “serious concern” and may “hamper assistance and relief activities,” October 27 letters from the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Pyongyang seen by NK News read.
The letters and accompanying documentation, compiled by Tapan Mishra – who has served in the role since 2015 – include a detailed inventory of what are said to be 42 direct and indirect occasions where sanctions have impeded UN-linked and NGO humanitarian work inside the DPRK.
Sent to senior UN personnel working on emergency relief and humanitarian affairs, the letters warn of the “unintended consequences” of both multilateral and unilateral sanctions.
The multiple issues raised in the 42-point inventory come despite United Nations Security Council (UNSC) agreement that sanctions resolutions are “not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population of the DPRK…[and] the work of international and non-government organizations carrying out assistance and relief activities in the DPRK for the benefit of the civilian population,” the letters said.
Overall, the accompanying inventory showed problems falling within five principal areas, together resulting in myriad delays, prohibitions and supplier-side cancellations that pose direct and indirect consequences for aid recipients in North Korea, as well as to foreigners working to improve humanitarian conditions in-country.
“Crucial relief items, including medical equipment and drugs, have been held up for months despite being equipped with the required paperwork affirming that they are not on the list of sanctions items,” the letters explained.
Furthermore, “a growing number of transport companies are now hesitant to take on cargo destined for DPRK for fear of financial and reputational costs of being implicated with trade to a country under sanctions.”
In addition, an increasing number of Chinese suppliers have expressed reluctance to continue cooperation with humanitarian agencies in the DPRK “for fear of financial and reputational costs.”
Banking channels to support humanitarian activities in North Korea are currently facing major hurdles, the letters continued, with some transactions even outside the country being blocked by banks concerned about their relations with other financial institutions.
And in light of “explicit restrictions on import of petrol to DPRK (following UN Resolution 2371)” an ongoing petrol and diesel fuel price surge is “placing further constraints on agencies’ budgets and ability to carry out required missions to the field,” the letters said.
“Crucial relief items, including medical equipment and drugs, have been held up for months despite being equipped with the required paperwork…”
“LIFE THREATENING CONSEQUENCES”
The inventory of the 42 issues caused directly and indirectly by tightening North Korea sanctions – which have expanded sharply in recent years following frequent ballistic missile and nuclear testing by Pyongyang – range from the relatively mundane to issues that directly impact healthcare provision for vulnerable North Korean citizens.
“Without anesthesia machines, emergency operations like caesarian sections, appendectomies, intestinal obstructions etc. cannot be performed which may have life threatening consequences,” read the impact assessment of a three-month delay experienced by the World Health Organization (WHO) following an attempt to import 13 anesthesia machines halted by Chinese customs authorities in Dalian.
In another example, a UN agency was described as having to consider returning emergency reproductive health kits stuck in transit in Dalian due to the presence of “steam sterilizers made of aluminum” for which Chinese customs had not yet approved trans-shipment to North Korea.
The agency said it was considering returning the kits to the Netherlands to manually remove the aluminum sterilizers as a means of avoiding an otherwise 6-8 month wait on exemption approval, adding that needy North Korean hospitals would otherwise have to go without “the most vital equipment for infection prevention.”
And issues in India caused by shipping carriers, at least one still unresolved, meant that deliveries of drugs to treat tuberculosis (TB) and malaria have been delayed, while a digital X-Ray machine and TB diagnostic reagents necessary for detecting the disease had been stuck in European countries since April and September respectively, pending approval by Chinese customs.
Nevertheless, UNICEF – one of the affected agencies – in June told NK News it was confident of being able to arrange and deliver humanitarian aid to fight tuberculosis and malaria in North Korea.
Causes for the full inventory of 42 issues ranged from legal blocks, anxiety in local banks, inclusion of the word “Korea” in supplier name fields, supplementary paperwork requirements, concerns over potentially dual-use materials, and connections between sanctioned banks and in-country providers, among others.
“Without anesthesia machines, emergency operations like caesarian sections, appendectomies, intestinal obstructions etc. cannot be performed which may have life threatening consequences…”
One of the other big areas of concern emerging from the growing UN sanctions regime for operations in North Korea relates to “catch-all provisions in UN Resolutions 2270 and 2321” which “prohibits all activities by Member States or agencies that could strengthen the military capabilities of DPRK in any way,” a separate document included with the letters said.
“Seeing as the DPRK is a highly militarized society, with the military involved in nearly all sectors of the economy, this is one of the most difficult provisions to comply with,” said the document, which focuses on the impact of UN Resolutions 2270 and 2321 on the operational activities of the UN Country Team (UNCT) and agencies in DPRK.
“The immediate implications of the above described ‘catch-all’ provision are that any business with any company or entity linked to the DPRK military is prohibited,” the document continued. “Likewise any provision of goods and services that could one way or another reach the military must be ended if it exists.”
“Seeing as the DPRK is a highly militarized society, with the military involved in nearly all sectors of the economy, this is one of the most difficult provisions to comply with…”
Though not apparently posing an immediate impact on the operation of UN agencies working inside North Korea, the document warned that risks in this area could unknowingly apply to “purchase of fuel as well as procurement of vehicle repair services, as those are likely to be procured in-country and could be supplied by a military owned company.”
The document also flagged how both multilateral and unilateral measures comprising the broader North Korea sanctions regime might impact the operations of UN agencies on the ground, classifying them into high, medium and low risk groups.
“High risk” items that were described as being especially susceptible to sanctions complications – potentially having “critical” impact on some operations in-country – were described as including fertilizers, laboratory agents, IT equipment, cameras, conference systems and copier, the document said.
Problems identified in the UN letters and accompanying paperwork are not new, but have reportedly been steadily worsening with the rapid broadening of the sanctions regime since early 2017.
An August 2016 NK News investigation into the impact of sanctions on humanitarian work in North Korea, for example, found that the situation on the ground was “highly nuanced and decidedly non-binary,” with problems caused in equal part by uncooperative North Korean partners, growing donor fatigue, and problems with aid monitoring and evaluation.
Aid organizations and sources within UN bodies have also previously reported that North Koreans have restricted access to parts of the country, created hurdles for the full collection of data, and have been sensitive about the deployment of Korean language speakers on certain missions.
Over a year later, many of those problems still remain, multiple sources told NK News, but appear to now compound those resulting from the worsening overall sanctions regime.
“This is a government that willfully chooses to let its people suffer grievously while focusing resources on weapons of mass destruction and luxuries for the leadership,” Ambassador Robert King, former United States special envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, told NK News.
“When a government is making a tough decision about where to put its limited humanitarian assistance funds, North Korea is an increasingly difficult decision to justify to taxpayers and tough-minded legislators.”
“This is a government that willfully chooses to let its people suffer grievously while focusing resources on weapons of mass destruction and luxuries for the leadership…”
And in that regard, WFP spokesperson Silke Buhr told NK News on Wednesday that from their perspective, “the greatest problem, however, that WFP current(ly) faces in DPRK is critical funding shortfalls.”
“WFP has already had to leave 190,000 children in kindergartens without nutritional support,” Buhr said.
“This support cannot resume unless new funding is assured for six months. This is on top of cuts in force since February 2017, when we were forced to shrink rations by one-third, to the minimum needed to make any difference.
“We urgently need US$14.25 million to see us through the harsh winter and avoid more cuts,” Buhr added.
Yet another source working on North Korea assistance told NK News that some in Pyongyang were very much aware of the problems that their actions – which have this year included three ICBM tests and one hydrogen bomb nuclear detonation – caused as far as impeding humanitarian aid goes.
But for those who can even raise the money and support, not-for-profit director Geoffrey See – founder of Choson Exchange – said it appears that companies and banks are increasingly eager to avoid “any risk associated with North Korea…whether it’s for organizations working in North Korea or for people working on the refugee issue outside of North Korea.”
“This and the unwillingness of other business to deal with North Korea has driven up the costs of operations for those working on the issue,” he continued.
An NGO worker speaking on condition of anonymity who regularly visits the North said the situation had become progressively more challenging in 2017 due to the difficulties emerging from the international sanctions regime.
The source said their particular NGO was therefore “teetering on the edge,” with tasks normally taking 30 minutes increasingly taking weeks to accomplish and there now being “several layers of issues” that need to be tackled every time support is to be provisioned to North Korea.
“This and the unwillingness of other business to deal with North Korea has driven up the costs of operations for those working on the issue…”
But that source and others still expressed some nuance about just how drastic the issue is.
Another NGO staff member working from North Korea, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of speaking to media, said the combined problems meant “it is becoming harder to find suppliers, or transport companies, or even consultants, because of that.”
But the same staff member was keen to stress that “work remains possible” and that the situation was not so bad that sanctions are now preventing work from taking place.
And a third NGO source with recent experience on the ground concurred, saying they believed there to be a “mixed message” about the impact of sanctions, with “some expats seeing the glass half full, some seeing it half empty”.
“Upscale shops have stocks in abundance with lots of luxury goods incl. imported food and things like imported appliances (TVs, wash machines, fridges, etc.),” the third NGO source said, despite all of the problems humanitarian groups report.
The first NGO source concluded that they believed that sanctions architects did not intend to stop humanitarian work in North Korea, but that the net result of the emerging measures was to make things increasingly difficult, time consuming and costly.
“Through this letter, I am also seeking your support, as Chair of the 1718 Committee, in reminding Member States that the sanctions are not meant to hamper assistance and relief activities,” one of two letters by the UN Resident Coordinator said.
“A formal communication from the Sanctions Committee reiterating to all concerned parties that humanitarian activities are exempt from sanctions would be very helpful in this regard,” the letter continued.
A similar letter, addressed to the UN’s Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, sought similar support to help “minimize the impact of sanctions on humanitarian programming”.
“Through this letter, I am also seeking your support … in reminding Member States that the sanctions are not meant to hamper assistance and relief activities”
Whether or not their inputs will help solve the issue, it’s possible that with a little time, things may improve, the third NGO worker source said.
“The latest sanctions have shaken up a number of existing mechanism of trade channels, (Chinese) suppliers are scared and are not ready to take risks of being banned or accused,” the third NGO source said.
“But normally after some weeks and months things are settling in again and the trade channels are newly established.”
However, the timing of the growing problems, coinciding with North Korea’s freezing cold winter season, is less than ideal.
“What is less clear for now is the impact of sanctions on the population,” the second NGO worker continued. “We know very little.”
“There is definitely less fuel and less electricity, but for the rest, it’s hard to say: People are already living with almost nothing so it’s difficult to go lower.”
Concerns about the impact of sanctions on humanitarian aid in North Korea – where malnutrition and chronic health problems remain an issue – were raised as recently as last week raised in an emergency meeting of the UNSC.
Speaking at an emergency meeting of the body in the aftermath of North Korea’s test launch of the Hwasong-15 missile, Swedish Ambassador to the UN Olof Skoog voiced such concerns.
“The measures adopted by the council were never intended to have a negative effect on humanitarian assistance, therefore recent reports that the sanctions are having adverse consequences and on humanitarian organization’s ability to respond to these urgent humanitarian needs are deeply concerning,” he said.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Main picture: NK News