August 17, 2019
August 17, 2019


Opinion on the latest North Korea issues from analysts, academics and experts worldwide. Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own.

Humanitarian exemptions for North Korean aid work: crunching the numbers
Humanitarian exemptions for North Korean aid work: crunching the numbers
The process has streamlined in recent months, though humanitarian groups still face major challenges
July 16th, 2019

Aid to North Koreans, including pregnant women and people with disabilities, was frequently delayed by up to ten months or completely blocked from 2018 to 2019.

Two main factors within UN sanctions contributed to these delays: a tedious approval process of up to five months and 12 days, and 59 broad prohibited categories including syringes, needles, and wheelchairs.

Delays were reduced by nearly eighty five percent in 2019 compared to 2018, signaling a policy shift in aid exemptions within the Members of the Sanctions Committee.

The approval of UN sanction exemptions was delayed by an average of 15 days in 2019 compared to 99 days in 2018. In 2019, the slowest approval took 35 days for the World Health Organization while, in 2018, the slowest approval took 165 days, or 5 months and 12 days, for an Irish NGO called Concern Worldwide.

The United Nations Panel of Experts estimates sanctions have delayed the actual delivery of aid by up to nine to ten months. Examples include a nine month delay in fully equipping hospitals against cases of maternal emergencies.

People with disabilities waited more than ten months for wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, walkers, hearing aids, and glasses. The refurbishment of safe shelters were delayed by nine months, and the construction of canals against floods were delayed for more than seven months.

In addition to significant delays in aid items, a total of 59 broad categorizations in UN sanctions have blocked items relevant to aid. 19 categories of medical items are blocked including sterilizers, syringes, needles, ambulances, x-ray machines, and microscopes.

According to the Panel of Experts, 229,235 people “will not receive clean drinking water” due to delays and funding shortfalls

15 categories of clean water items are blocked including well drilling machines, filters, pumps, water tanks, pipes, and heaters. 19 categories of food and agricultural items are blocked including stoves, greenhouses, irrigation, harvesting, and processing equipment.

Delays in obtaining sanctions exemptions affect people’s access to clean water, medical items, and food. According to the Panel of Experts, 229,235 people “will not receive clean drinking water” due to delays and funding shortfalls. Sanctions also delayed the installation of 35 wells and water systems to 61,284 people.

Due to delays in medical items, 150,000 pregnant women did not have access to safe delivery and 22,000 women at risk will not have access to blood transfusions.

Sanctions have blocked a number of clean water items from import to North Korea — requiring a lengthy approval process | Photo: KCNA

Sanctions delayed the delivery of nine ambulances and spare parts for five ambulances used to distribute tuberculosis and malaria vaccines. Due to delayed food aid, North Koreans face increased risks of malnutrition due to the lack of irrigation, harvesting, and processing equipment for one season.

It is unfortunate that delays in aid affected so many vulnerable people, but prospects are improving in 2019. The international community should work to minimize unintended harms of sanctions.

Members of the UN Sanctions Committee have clearly contributed to more efficient humanitarian aid to North Korea in 2019. Although humanitarian aid organizations still face challenges including a closed banking channel, the acceleration of the exemption process this year should be encouraging news for humanitarian aid organizations working in North Korea.

Note: Delays in the approval of UN sanction exemptions in this report were calculated through a combination of UN Security Council records currently in effect and delays described by the UN Panel of Experts report from March 5, 2019. Overall delays in actual delivery and the categories of prohibited items are from the Panel of Experts report. A comparison of exemption approvals categorized by the approval date showed almost no difference in the two years because the slower 2019 request approvals from 2018 balanced out those from 2019. Delays in exemption approvals were calculated based on the year requested.

Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham

Featured image: UNICEF

Get North Korea headlines delivered to your inbox daily

Subscribe to the NK News 'Daily Update' and get links to must-read stories each morning

Skip to toolbar