The requirement for explicit State Department approval for an American citizen to use a U.S. passport to travel to North Korea was initially imposed largely to discourage travel to the North because American citizens were being detained there.
The regulations went into effect September 1, 2017, just two months after the body of a young American college student, Otto Warmbier, was returned to the United States in a comatose state after he was detained for well over a year in North Korea.
The one-year extension of the travel ban on September 1 of 2018 again focused largely on the problem of the safety of American citizens being detained there.
The latest justification for denial of travel permission for officials of U.S. humanitarian assistance organizations, however, focused less on the risk of detention and focused instead on the administration’s view that humanitarian aid is not in the U.S. “national interest.”
This is now apparently a key part of the “maximum pressure” campaign to force Pyongyang to make progress on denuclearization.
A key inter-government player in the decision whether to grant travel permission is the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), which is responsible for sanctions and sanctions enforcement. This office is likely a voice opposing humanitarian NGO travel to North Korea.
Banning humanitarian aid by denying travel permission to a few American humanitarian aid workers will hardly create pressure on Kim Jong Un or the Pyongyang elite.
The political leadership are doing quite well, thank you. No food shortages exist for the elite. There is no lack of medical care or the latest medicines in the capital city, and Singapore or other foreign destinations are available if the most up-to-date treatment is required for members of the regime leadership.
This is not a society where the Pyongyang leadership feels any pressure from its people because of food shortages, the lack of medical care, lack of housing, lack of heating fuel with the approach of winter, lack of electric power, lack of clean water, or poor sanitation.
It is difficult to see how “maximum pressure” necessitates stopping modest aid for those in North Korea who are suffering and also have little or no ability to influence political decisions. It does, however, strengthen the Pyongyang leadership’s propaganda claims that the United States hates the people of North Korea.
If Washington is serious about “maximum pressure” on the North Korean leadership (who do make the decisions), the focus should be on stopping goods for the elite and sources of funding for military programs. There is no benefit to stopping medical care for North Koreans with Multi-Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis or preventing programs to improve agricultural efficiency.
The most effective way of applying “maximum pressure” on the North Korean leadership would be to work with China. As much as 90 percent of DPRK foreign trade is with China or passes through China to reach the North. Working with China on economic sanctions is the best way forward.
It is difficult to see how “maximum pressure” necessitates stopping modest aid for those in North Korea who are suffering
Until the White House began its tariff war with China earlier this year, Beijing was an effective partner in limiting the flow of sanctioned goods to North Korea.
The counterproductive tariff war with Beijing is doing little to resolve the underlying problems in U.S.-China economic relations, but it is contributing to China’s loosening of economic sanctions on North Korea. (Working cooperatively with China also would have the side benefit of helping soybean farmers in American states such as Iowa, the Dakotas, Illinois, and other Midwestern states, where the price of soybeans has fallen to a ten-year low.)
Unfortunately, the misguided U.S. policy to ban American NGOs travel to North Korea appears to include discouraging UN assistance to North Korea as well.
Though the fingerprint evidence has not yet been found, it is likely that U.S. action was a key factor behind the decision announced a few months ago by the UN Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria to suspend help for North Korea to fight tuberculosis and malaria as of June 30, 2018.
In light of the seriousness of the tuberculosis problem in the North, this decision is dangerous. The North will have serious difficulty dealing with its tuberculosis problem, and this will likely also have a negative impact on neighboring countries.
The North Korean regime makes it difficult to NGOs and others to provide humanitarian help for its citizens. But it can be and has been done effectively before.
As the Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues, I negotiated with North Korean officials in Pyongyang and Beijing in 2011 and 2012, and we reached agreement with on how we might satisfy U.S. legal requirements for assessing need and monitoring distribution of nutrition assistance for preschool children.
The agreement satisfied U.S. requirements for assessment and monitoring. It also was acceptable to the North Korean government. The North’s aggressive nuclear and missile program that came shortly after our agreement was reached politically did not allow us to move forward with aid.
There is no question in my mind that the United States should not prevent travel to North Korea by officials of American NGOs engaged in humanitarian assistance.
If these organizations are conducting needs assessments and monitoring the use of the aid they are providing—which the American NGOs we have dealt with are—they should be permitted to travel so they can properly manage their programs.
The focus should be on stopping goods for the elite and sources of funding for military programs
It is more difficult when the assistance is provided by the United States government from American taxpayer funds. Existing statutes specify how and under what circumstances this aid can be provided.
There are certainly times when U.S. government restriction of humanitarian assistance is appropriate. At present that may be a step too far.
I believe, however, that we can—and we should—allow humanitarian engagement with North Korea by American non-government organizations.
We can do so in ways that do not enhance the North’s military capabilities, and it would help deal with genuine and urgent needs. Furthermore, these private aid efforts help to break down barriers between the United States and North Korea.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: UNICEF