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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
An American Christian aid organization which focuses on tuberculosis (TB) and hepatitis treatment in North Korea is the latest NGO to be granted humanitarian sanctions exemptions by the UN, the website of the 1718 Sanctions Committee showed.
As of August 7, the North Carolina-based Christian Friends of Korea (CFK) has been authorized by the UN to procure and ship materials for “humanitarian projects for vulnerable populations of TB, hepatitis and pediatric patients in the DPRK.”
While the six-month exemption marks the second for CFK by the UN this year following one granted in mid-January for the same areas of work, the organization continues to raise concerns over what it describes as sanctions-related burdens on the aid process.
In addition to granting the July 19-dated initial request for shipping thousands of items to North Korea purchased primarily from the U.S. and China, the exemption letter also took the rare step of acknowledging a major complaint over financing issues made by CFK and other organizations in the past.
“The Committee takes note of CFK’s difficulties in transferring funds via international wire transfer to legitimate overseas humanitarian suppliers,” the UN said, appearing to reference the reluctance of some companies to do business with organizations in the process of shipping items to North Korea for fear of becoming the target of secondary sanctions.
The committee, the letter continued, “requests that CFK provide further detailed information on this issue.”
In its 2019 summer newsletter, CFK revealed it had seen another recent positive step in fighting sanctions burdens in being “granted our long-awaited OFAC license from the U.S. Treasury Department.”
But it also said “there are still many challenges in procurement, logistics and banking.”
That OFAC license, it continued, gives CFK “legal permission to resume critical aspects of our work, including renovation activities at care centers, and essential purchases of related project materials (from third countries), as well as purchases of greenhouses, small tractors, and other related goods.”
The newsletter also stated the organization’s belief that “the administration of humanitarian work is much more complex than ever before” in the DPRK, citing the hours and human resource allocation required to ensure sanctions compliance.
CFK’s website states that it “provides ongoing support to more than 30 care centers including the National Tuberculosis Reference Laboratory (NRL), 7 provincial tuberculosis (TB) and hepatitis hospitals, and nearly 18 TB and hepatitis rest homes” in both urban and rural areas across the DPRK.
36 such locations in Kaesong, the capital city of Pyongyang, and other smaller towns are listed in the annex of the latest exemption letter as beneficiaries of the thousands of items set to be shipped into the country during the next six months.
Included are 10,000 water filters and buckets “to provide safe, clean drinking water for TB, hepatitis and pediatric health care centers and patients suffering from chronic diarrhea in their homes” — held back due to sanctions prohibiting the import of metal bucket handles and filters.
2000 “family sized hygiene kits” for use at treatment centers and in post-disaster situations, as well as 7000 hygiene kits and 75 blankets for TB, hepatitis, and pediatric patients, will be shipped following the exempting of metal sewing needles and fingernail clippers.
Materials to build greenhouses and dozens of tractors and related parts were also included, to go towards expanding “local capacity to grow vitamin-rich, fresh food year-round for vulnerable patients suffering from disease and malnutrition.”
Then there are hundreds of items ranging from electrical components for solar panels to construction materials and equipment to “complete the renovation and equipping” of the hepatitis and tuberculosis hospitals and their diagnostic laboratories in South Hwanghae province, Pyongyang, and Kaesong.
Various labs will also receive modern diagnostic machinery, computers, and other patient support equipment, including exam tables, testing equipment, and hundreds of hospital beds.
CFK’s summer newsletter described plans for “full-fledged renovations” at the South Hwanghae #2 Hepatitis Hospital laboratory, following “a two-year hiatus due to unintended sanctions impacts.”
Hundreds of sanctioned metals and other items now exempted will go into installing “up to 3 solar/gravity water distribution systems” at CFK-supported centers, while “spare parts and related materials” will be shipped “for refurbishment, repair and reinstallation of an oxygen bottling machine” at the Kaesong City People’s Hospital.
Finally, there are construction materials to “build a covering for the CFK storage containers located at the Pyongyang #2 Hepatitis Hospital,” as well as engine oil for CFK vehicles and other program needs.
Overall, CFK appeared upbeat in its latest newsletter about prospects for sanctions exemptions and continued aid work in North Korea, though it still highlighted infrastructural and institutional roadblocks and referred to hepatitis treatment as an otherwise “hopeless space” in the country.
In other areas, they said, “there are misunderstandings, miscommunications, and even more serious breaches of trust.”
But despite suggesting DPRK ministries and local hospitals lack government support to treat such illnesses, the NGO also said the Ministry of Health had asked it to transition out of the aid process in some areas due to the built-up local capacity.
Moving forward, CFK is planning to visit the DPRK this month to continue lab renovations, follow-up consultations for hepatitis B patients, beginning treatment for hepatitis C patients, and delivering the thousands of water filter buckets granted in the two UN exemptions this year, among other tasks.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Christian Friends of Korea